A brief history of silence: when no noise is good noise

Football fans are agitated about plans to mark the Munich air disaster at tomorrow's Manchester derby. It's not surprising, says Andy McSmith, when such tributes are so ubiquituous
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In Manchester, in case you have missed it, controversy has raged for days over whether to clap, or be silent. They are going for silence. Manchester United had planned a minute's silence at tomorrow's home game, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Munich air crash, the most traumatic event in the history of the club.

But, by an unfortunate coincidence, today's visiting side are Manchester City. As is normal in football, the fact that the teams' supporters live in close proximity to each other generates fierce rivalry, spilling over, in a few sad cases, into actual hatred.

At the City of Manchester Stadium, they recalled trying to hold a minute's silence after the death of George Best, in November 2005; a few Liverpool fans made trouble, and the tribute did not last the full 60 seconds. They are now worried that one or two City fans with strong lungs and weak brains might turn this weekend's act of respect into a scandal.

Kevin Parker, spokesman for the City supporters' club, told BBC Radio 5 Live: "It will only take one of those idiots to decide to shout something stupid and then the whole situation has been spoilt for ever. We are calling for applause just in case."

But United are the host team, and their decision stands. Tomorrow's silence will be one of many held this year – some lasting a minute, and some longer – to mark events, single deaths, multiple deaths, violent deaths and natural deaths. We live in a time of silence inflation.

Commemorative silence first became a fixed event in British national life nearly 90 years ago, on 11 November 1919. A South African politician named Sir Percy Fitzpatrick was wrongly credited as inventing the idea, because of his part in deciding how Britain and the Commonwealth would mark the first anniversary of Armistice Day.

Actually, the practice of silently remembering the dead was already established. The death of King Edward VII, in 1910, was marked by a minute's silence. So was the news of the sinking of the Titanic, in 1912. Sir Percy will have remembered how his fellow South Africans stood in silence on receiving bad news from the front line during the war.

But Sir Percy's proposal was different. He suggested to King George V that victory in the bloodiest war in history should be commemorated by a ritual associated with mourning. It suited the mood of the moment. Too many people were grieving for loved ones and living with economic dislocation. The public was more inclined to mourn than gloat over Germany's humiliation.

The idea of a silence appealed to the King, who invited Sir Percy and others to a rehearsal by the Grenadier Guards in Buckingham Palace. They decided that five minutes was too long, and settled for two.

On 7 November 1919 the King issued a proclamation asking "that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be, forthe brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our normal activities. All locomotion should cease so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead".

Years later, a group of citizens of Melbourne, Australia, ran a vigorous campaign to establish that, actually, the silence that marked Armistice Day was not Sir Percy's idea, but was first thought up by an Australian journalist and war veteran named Edward George Honey, who came from Melbourne but was based in London at the time. He had seen people dancing in the streets on Armistice Day, and thought it an inappropriate way to mark the end of the slaughter.

No doubt, he remembered that when he was young, Australians stood in silence out of respect for victims of a mining accident. He wrote to the Evening News in May 1919 urging that the first anniversary be marked by "five silent minutes of national remembrance. A very sacred intercession. Communion with the Glorious Dead who won us peace, and from the communion new strength, hope and faith in the morrow".

The two-minute silence has featured in the November calendar ever since. It was moved to the second Sunday in November during the Second World War, to avoid disrupting production, and after 1945, its name was changed to Remembrance Day, in honour of the dead of both wars.

That it was two minutes long was recognition of the enormous human cost of the two wars. Other crimes and tragedies merited only a minute. Even the deaths in terror attacks of 11 September 2001 were commemorated in 2002 by a one-minute silence in the US and across the Western world.

Then in March 2004, terrorists struck again, killing 191 people in the Madrid train bombs. That weekend, there were one-minute silences at football matches across Spain; at the Sydney Opera House, where the Spanish singer Enrique Iglesias was appearing; and at the political rally when the incoming Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, was celebrating his election victory.

Bertie Ahern, the Prime Minister of Ireland, which held the EU presidency, thought more was needed to bring a sense of unity to the EU, which was bitterly divided over the war in Iraq. He called on all member-nations to observe a silence for Madrid's dead – not for one minute, or even two. It was to be Europe's first three-minute silence.

If Madrid was worth three minutes, New York had to be worth four. In 2004, the 9/11 commemoration was altered so that there were four minutes of silence, one for each of the four aeroplanes destroyed by the hijackers. Two years later, George Bush led the fifth anniversary ceremony by standing in silence at Ground Zero for four minutes.

On 5 January 2005, silence descended over all of western Europe for another three minutes, in memory of 150,000 victims of the Asian tsunami. By now, the grumblings about silence inflation were becoming audible. In the Daily Mail, Max Hastings furiously announced that he would keep talking through what he called "a political stunt that betrays our war dead and demeans the awesome generosity of the British public". Six months later, at noon on 14 July, London came to another three-minute halt, as railway stations and airports fell silent, buses pulled into the kerb, office workers piled out on to the streets, and crowds in busy shopping streets stood still, in memory of the 52 people killed a week earlier by suicide bombers.

Silence that commemorates a war or a terrorist attack at least has a ritual significance, because it implies a collective determination not to allow the event to be repeated. There is no such purpose to silences marking events which, though sad, are of no obvious collective significance.

Two weeks ago, 1,000 American and Australian guests at a function at New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel held a minute's silence for Heath Ledger, a 28-year-old actor who died of a drug overdose. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales was also allocated a minute's silence. The list goes on: football tragedies such as Hillsborough and Heysel; the deaths of Bob Woolmer, the cricket coach, and Sir Edmund Hillary, the climber; the murder of Kenneth Bigley and the death of the Pope John Paul II.

On 31 March 2005, there was a minute's silence at the Parsonage, in Haworth, West Yorkshire, to mark the death of the former vicar's daughter. Her name was Charlotte Bronte, and she died in 1855. You would think they were over the shock by now.

Nearly 12 years ago, the whole of Britain recoiled in horror at the massacre of 16 primary schoolchildren and a teacher by a gunman in Dunblane. The killer was dead, and there was nothing for the nation to do – except, of course, hold a minute's silence. On this occasion, there was a rare act of dissent, when the heads of the Roman Catholic church, Cardinal Basil Hume and Cardinal Basil Winning, put out a statement saying: "The Christian response to such tragedy is not silence, but rather fervent prayer to God for the victims, their families, the community and our society."

They were of course ignored. In our secular society, prayer is not a public activity. We honour the dead with the sound of silence.