I’m sitting in my local library, in Church Street, London. Trying to concentrate, the way you do. There are people reading and writing, and taking books off shelves, and reading the newspaper. There are also two people, one man and one woman, making telephone calls. I imagine it’s a WhatsApp call or Skype, via the library’s decent wifi setup. The guy is keeping his voice down a bit (some kind of business deal), the woman, if anything, is speaking louder than normal. She is upset. Something about how she has thrown her partner out of the house for excessive drinking or something. Either way, it’s a sad tale. 

But what I really want to know is this: whatever happened to those signs in libraries that said, “SILENCE PLEASE”, or “SILENCE MEANS SILENCE”? When did libraries become silence-free zones? The telephone callers come in here specifically to shoot the breeze. The library has become a mecca for mobile phone users who can’t get a decent signal in the street.

I was recently on a train journey from London to Bristol. An hour or two. I had reserved a seat in the “Quiet Carriage”. A train is not a library (although that’s not a bad idea). But it seems reasonable to have at least one compartment dedicated to people who want to keep it down for a while. There are polite notices (that not everybody reads) asking passengers to refrain from (as per the library) making telephone calls. But what about loud conversations? Is there a protocol about that? Two women, sitting opposite one another, keep up their dialogue, punctuated by laughter, all the way to Bristol. Maybe they really are old friends who haven’t seen one another for years. But I get the feeling that, overt content aside, everything they say is a protest, a revolt against oppressive peace and quiet.

You will often find me walking down the street (or, indeed, sitting in libraries or in quiet carriages) wearing a pair of headphones – the big ones that go right over your ears. And you are welcome to tap me on the shoulder and say: “Aren’t you that curmudgeon who goes about complaining about noise and yet here you are with headphones on, listening to music. Isn’t there some kind of contradiction here, verging on hypocrisy?” (or words to that effect). And I might reply to you – perhaps wordlessly – by removing the headphones and inviting you to listen to… the sound of silence. I am wearing the headphones to keep the music out. 

But in any case, even if I were listening to that old song by Simon and Garfunkel (now to be heard in a rather louder version by a band called Disturbed), there is a big difference between consensual listening and the non-consensual kind. Take, for example, my local gym. Again, the gym is not a library or a quiet carriage. You expect to hear a certain amount of grunting and groaning and huffing and puffing, not to mention the chugging of X-trainers and rowing machines and the clang of weights hitting the floor. But do I have to listen to yet another droopy Ed Sheeran tune as well? In fact most of the “songs” at the gym are not songs at all but rather extended disco programmes consisting of some endlessly repeated electronic pulse. Like static, but too irregular to count as white noise.

Even in the post-industrial landscape we still seek out the solitude of far-flung spaces, the forest or the desert or the mountain

I went to the trouble of writing to the higher powers at the gym to register dismay at this aural fodder and trying to get them to change their playlist, but was told that the “music” is bought in as a package from some anonymous provider, so can’t be modified, and is deemed to be suitable for the purpose of exercising anyway. Someone is paying for this garbage? I’d pay not to have to listen to it.

Does life need a perpetual soundtrack, as if it were a movie, with a theme tune denoting sharks or flying saucers or romance? Or commentary, as if it were the Big Match or the Big Fight? We are living through an age of maximum noise, which has driven me into the arms of a new book, A History of Silence, by the French historian Alain Corbin, who has also written marvellous histories of bells, beaches and smells (and even a history of the weather). Books used to be largely audio. Since there weren’t too many copies around (and there weren’t too many people capable of reading them), they would be read out loud to the assembled throng. It’s only in the era since Gutenberg and Caxton that the text has become the accessory of quiet contemplation, the opportunity for a silent conversation going on in your head, and Shakespeare can write: “Come and take choice of all my library and so beguile thy sorrow.” A History of Silence is definitely beguiling, like an oasis of tranquility amid the maelstrom.

My father, I recall, was close enough to a bomb exploding to lose 50 per cent of his hearing. But I want to set aside acts of war and concentrate on what, for want of a better term, we can call acts of peace. Probably the least peaceful environment I’ve ever been exposed to is a metalworking factory. My job was to feed and clean out the machines. Which kept on ceaselessly stamping out nuts and bolts. Maybe they provide ear-protectors these days, but then you were on your own. It was the aural equivalent of hell, the dark but also ear-splitting satanic mills, where you can’t hear yourself think. I didn’t last too long in that cacophonic job, mainly because I thought it was going to inflict lasting cerebral damage, like getting in the ring with a heavyweight for punishing round after round. They worry about footballers heading the ball, but what if the ball is pounding into your head all day long? 

And talking of headbanging, isn’t this the point of the typical rock concert? Was it on the Isle of Wight or that one in Suffolk – Latitude Festival – where I found myself rammed up against one of the loudspeakers? My brain is still reeling too much from the experience to recall exactly. It seems ironic that even musicians need to wear earplugs. Probably didn’t happen to JS Bach. I know Beethoven went deaf, but probably not as the result of an over-amplified pianoforte.  

I still don’t understand how Stephen King (according to his book On Writing) can write while listening to loud rock music (Metallica is one of his go-to bands). Or maybe it explains why Jack Nicholson can’t wait to pick up an axe in The Shining. Conversely, Proust needed the cork-lined bedroom to write in and even bribed builders working on the apartment above to stop work so he could finish a sentence. 

A silent retreat would test me to breaking point. Language is as indispensable to the mental as water is to the physical. In the beginning was the word

The rise of the Romantic sublime, with its adulation of the pastoral, was in part a counterpoint to the rise of industrial capitalism. Wandering lonely as a cloud tended to take you well away from the madding crowd and into the verdant wood to listen to the birdsong. When Wordsworth does stand on Westminster Bridge and look out over London (back in 1802), he makes sure it’s first thing, before everyone is up and around and making a racket: “This City now doth, like a garment, wear/The beauty of the morning; silent, bare/Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie/Open unto the fields, and to the sky/All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.”

Even in the post-industrial landscape, where the clatter and clamour of factories has given way to the constant chatter of mobile phones and annoying ringtones, we still seek out the solitude of far-flung spaces, the forest or the desert or the mountain. We want to get off the grid for a change. Switch off all the notifications. Leave an “on vacation” message on email. It’s like those telescopes that are installed on top of remote island peaks or in the Atacama desert to get away from all the artificial light. You’re not excluding light altogether, you’re just trying to focus on a point. So too we seek to escape the noise with some notion of getting a clearer signal from the great beyond. I imagine even GCHQ surveillance wallahs eventually take the headphones off and stop listening in to all those myriad conversations taking place every minute of the day, clandestine or not.

Considering the history of the universe, the Big Bang was actually the most peaceful event ever (and here I have to depart from Alain Corbin’s last-page shoutout to the “noise” of the Big Bang) because there was as yet no medium for conveying sound. Nor was there anyone around to lend an ear anyway. As the tagline of Alien used to says: “In space, no one can hear you scream”. 

There is a case for the music of the spheres. The whole of time and space is vibrating with gravitational waves, which are audible, so in this sense silence is an illusion. But noise is more of a human speciality, and the desire for serenity has risen alongside it. I just heard on the radio – maybe I should have turned it off? – Nicky Campbell denouncing as “pathetic… mollycoddling” the decision by Manchester University students to ban clapping and whooping, but I get that. It’s akin to mystics going off into the wilderness in their quest for the divine. They haven’t banned beer yet.

I have a talkative friend who has joined a Talkaholics Anonymous group. I guess she’s getting on pretty well because I haven’t heard from her for a long time. The recurrent catchphrase of Lee Child’s novels, “Reacher said nothing”, is a mute testimony to our sense that, at a certain point, you have to turn off the tap and call a halt to the wisecracks and witticisms and Boris-Johnsonian bluster and speechifying. 

But I understand the fear of silence. “The rest is silence.” It’s the tragic end of Act 5. It feels like RIP. Silence is spooky. Even the deeply contemplative Pascal, who prided himself on being able to remain at rest in a room, could look up into the night sky and fear “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces”. I couldn’t sign up as a Trappist monk. Even going off on one of those silent retreats would test me to breaking point. How long could I stand it? Language is as indispensable to the mental as water is to the physical. In the beginning was the word.

I can think of one guy who regularly used to lapse into silence, sometimes for days on end, as an alternative to the blazing row. I don’t blame his wife for leaving him. Coercive silence can sometimes be as much of an assault on the person as too many decibels.

But there has to be scope for voluntary and consensual silence. Nietzsche once defined marriage as “a long conversation”, which is fine, but there have to be times (curled up in front of the fire, walking down the street arm in arm) when the conversation stops and silence descends like grace, as soundless as snow falling. Silence (whisper it) is the language of love. Or as Wittgenstein so neatly put it: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”

Andy Martin is the author of ‘Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me’. He teaches at Cambridge University. A History of Silence, by Alain Corbin, is published by Polity

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