Magazine article The Spectator

All or Nothing

Magazine article The Spectator

All or Nothing

Article excerpt

A BOOK OF SILENCE by Sara Maitland Granta, £17.99, pp. 309, ISBN 9781847080424 £14.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

The BBC sound archive has a range of different silences: 'night silence in an urban street'; 'morning silence, dawn, the South Downs'; 'morning silence, winter moor'; 'silence, sitting room'; 'silence, garage'; 'silence, cement bunker; ' 'silence, beach'. You only have to read those phrases to know, viscerally, that their differences are true and real, and that you could add any number of others. Silence, kitchen, with fridge; silence, theatre; silence, restaurant, across the table; silence, restaurant, rural, general; silence, car, after argument; silence, bath; silence, bed, 3am; silence, at the Cenotaph; silence, friendly and silence, not.

When Tess and Angel Clare were approaching Stonehenge, 'the whole enormous landscape bore that impress of reserve, taciturnity, and hesitation which is usual just before day.' But where did those qualities come from: the doomed lovers, Hardy, the chalk, the silence of the dawn? Or from the relationship of all of them? As Sara Maitland says, silence is 'a mind event'.

It is always there, as attentive as a butler, waiting for us to shut up before offering its different versions of threat or balm.

In Maitland's hands, silence turns out to be another entire, psycho-geographical world laid alongside the one we know and hear and yack about so much. 'I learned to tell when it had been snowing in the night by the quality of the silence.' Of course that is true -- the muffled quiet of a snowy morning -- and her book is full of such moments, articulating the common but usually ignored and unexpressed experiences in our lives.

She is a passionate advocate for silence, for the revelatory role it can play. After a noisy, chat-filled life (argumentative siblings, time at Oxford sharing a house with Bill Clinton, marriage to an Anglo-Catholic priest, feminism, children, story-writing) she felt an urge to descend into silence, to know it both intellectually and through living it. This book is a record of that exploration, mostly in a remote cottage on Weardale in County Durham, in another equally hidden house in Skye and in expeditions to other unnoisy places (Muckle Flugga, Sinai, Galloway). A friend of hers had told her that silence was the enemy, that it was a mere absence and that freedom and fulfilment consisted of expression and engagement, of breaking the silence. …

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