Magazine article The Spectator

Switch Off

Magazine article The Spectator

Switch Off

Article excerpt

It might seem strange for someone who writes about radio to call on all listeners to switch off for half an hour a day. But after hearing the Archbishop of Canterbury and his guests talking about what silence means to them on Radio Three this week I feel compelled to recommend it. After all, the invention of the crystal set and microphone has added a potent new dimension to the endless babble of the world. A hundred years on, there's scarcely a household in the land without access to a 24/7 stream of artificial sound. I confess I've been a hopeless addict all my life, although never so bad that I've carried The Archers into the garden. But now in reparation I've decided, instead of giving up chocolate or booze for Lent, to switch off. Not for too long, I'd better add, so that I'm not delisted as a critic. But for just long enough to tune out of the world and into the sounds within.

Why not join me?

It can be terrifying, as the Archbishop admitted on Silence, the Sunday-night feature, for as soon as you switch off the outside sounds, the inside noise starts up ten times louder. And you never quite know what you might hear when you're listening only to yourself. An offbeat heart. An unexpected emotion.

Evelyn Glennie, who is profoundly deaf, asserted, 'There is no such thing as silence.' She's turned herself into a world-class percussionist by tuning in so acutely to the vibrations of her xylophones and marimbas that she can play alongside an orchestra and never miss a beat. 'The whole body is like a huge ear, ' she explained to the Archbishop, constantly beating, breathing, resonating with sound. All we have to do is train ourselves to hear what it is telling us. It can be frightening, but it's also a chance to discover a connection to something bigger than yourself, to the voice you can only hear if you at first create that silence within the soul.

How might our decisions be different if at first we met in silence, even for just five minutes at the beginning of each meeting or endeavour? The Quakers gather in silence because they believe, the Archbishop reminded us, that through such quiet stillness interesting words can emerge. A friend of mine runs a Quaker boarding school for 400 or so teenage pupils. Each day begins with a silent assembly. At first it is strange and difficult for the children to comply, but by such simple means it's possible to create a powerful sense of community and yet also of a meaningful individuality. …

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