Magazine article The Spectator

The Strange, Moving Yank upon Our Imagination of a Sound from the Past

Magazine article The Spectator

The Strange, Moving Yank upon Our Imagination of a Sound from the Past

Article excerpt

Can we hear a silence? The question has a more-than-Zen significance. I once heard a very nail-biting silence indeed. I had recruited the shy, thoughtful youth doing work-study in our Times office at Westminster and his more outgoing sister, Elizabeth, to join my pals and me on a charity parachute jump in the East Midlands. Only on signing young Lachlan's application form in loco parentis had I realised that his father was the proprietor of my newspaper. Nobody in the office had said so.

I was on the ground when the siblings jumped. You know when a parachutist is leaving an aeroplane because the pilot cuts his engine. For just a few seconds all noise stops. I watched as a tiny, ant-like black dot dropped from the little plane high above me. That would be Lachlan. Then another. That would be Elizabeth. From each, five seconds later, the full canopy spread. Silence ended, engine whine resumed. Both landed without mishap. Later I mentioned to Lachlan that I had not known his surname when first he asked to join our charity jump and, on learning it, had become extremely anxious lest his or Elizabeth's parachutes fail. Lachlan asked mildly whether it might have been reasonable to hope for some concern for a safe landing regardless of parentage.

I thought of that loud five seconds' silence today as I listened to a compact disc on sale from the British Library, custodians of the National Sound Archive. The disc, The Century in Sound, contains 47 tracks which, for one reason or another, could be called historic. The 25th was recorded in 1944 and lasts 41 seconds, of which 18 seconds are a total blank. The blank is the silence. The sound before the blank is the engine of a German V-I bomb above London, which then cuts. The sound after the silence is the explosion. Somewhere in the city today there may be an NCP car park which, had Londoners but known it, that dreadful silence presaged.

This CD is fantastic. How strange, how moving, how direct is the yank upon our imagination of a recorded sound from the past. Like smell, sound seems to reach straight for the feelings without tarrying in the intellect en route. A recorded noise seems somehow more proximate to the reality it recalls than a recorded picture. An advertisement placed in this magazine for this CD would reach readers, every one of whom, almost without exception, would be enthralled by the archive. Let this page be such an ad.

Alongside that 18-second silence there was another track which had the hairs on the back of my neck tingling. From 1918, and the Royal Garrison Artillery, comes what claims to be the recording of a battle during the Great War. It is a gas-shell bombardment: only a few seconds. A tense shout is followed by a confused putt-putting series of thuds. Why, throughout all that prolonged and terrible conflict, with the art of recording already well advanced, was no archive made at all - or none which survives? With what horrors, and with how many millions now dead, does this tiny fragment of noise serve as our last remaining link?

I was astonished to discover just how Welsh Lloyd George sounded. A remarkably clear recording of his 1909 speech on the Budget was made to popularise measures perhaps as revolutionary as any of those more sensational political acts we now remember better. His rather clipped little voice hardly does justice to the depth of the idea. Could that be among the reasons we have rather unjustly forgotten Lloyd George? …

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