There is nothing noisier than silence, if your head is full of words. Escape the clamour of the city and at once an excited voice enthuses about the quiet. “How wonderful,” you tell yourself getting out of the car, “to have made it up to the Highlands, to have fled the traffic and the TV and the strident voices round the dinner table. Fantastic!” You strike off along a path through pine trees – isn’t the hush extraordinary! – and before you know it yesterday’s argument with your wife is playing out in your head. How could she have said that! “You’re lucky you still have someone to insult.” That would have been the smart answer. Why didn’t I think of it? Wait a minute, is my phone getting a signal? Damn.
When my father died I discovered, sorting out his papers, that he donated to the Noise Abatement Society. Dad was always hyper-sensitive to sound. Me too. I’m the kind of guy who keeps fresh earplugs in every coat pocket, to cut out the phone babble on the train, the buzz of announcements at the airport, or the beating music from an adjacent room. So when I hear about the Facebook campaign to make John Cage’s 4’33” Christmas No 1, I’m immediately on board. When I see titles such as Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence, or George Foy’s Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence, I order them at once. The hunger for silence is growing, I tell myself. Great! Just that the quieter it is outside, the more noise there seems to be inside my head.