When women whispered and men whistled we were a quiet people Gone but not forgotten: the spaces once filled by the sound of silence

Silence, like darkness, has become an unknown commodity which children learn about from fairy tales
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The Independent Online
IF THE British Legion has its way, the Two Minutes' Silence will be reinstated. Perhaps the revival will catch on. Perhaps people all over the land, not just in Whitehall before the Cenotaph, will stand still and wordless for 120 seconds as they did when I was a child.

Each then tried to think about somebody killed in either World War: a small individual meditation. Today, most people are too young to remember any of the dead directly. So they must think about the impersonal, the collective: "My country ... the pity of war ... all those victims ..." Inevitably, this Silence will be less private, more contrived and "political", than the old one.

Why silence? I do not know when that custom began, replacing loud ritual lamentation. Is it because the dead are silent? Or is it to do with the way people faced with a death say awkwardly: "There is nothing I can say..." (Wrong: there always is.) But the custom is part of us all now, and there are few who do not have certain silences engraved on the memory.

When I think of them, however, I realise that it is not so much the silence itself that I remember as the small sounds which it contained. In December 1980, the Poles met on a blustery night at Gdansk to dedicate a monument to the dead of the 1970 riots, and what I remember about those minutes of silence is the cracking of flags in the wind from the sea, the wailing of ship sirens far away in the Bay of Hel. And then those broadcasts on 11 November from Whitehall ... the echoes of a metalled rifle butt scraping on stone, an old man's cough, the flutter of a pigeon's wings.

On a lower plane, I remember the reverent silence that used to pervade restaurants in this country. Only the Bohemian few chattered and laughed over lunch, in some little Greek or Italian place in Soho where the windows were steamed up, where there was worn red lino on the floor and where the wine turned girls' teeth black.

Elsewhere, less pretentious people tended to eat in silence. Talking at meals was felt to be faintly bad manners, beyond a polite murmur for the cruets. Forks and knives clinked, floorboards squeaked under the tread of a waitress, a glass might ping only to be rapidly stilled between finger and thumb. Otherwise, there was a hush. Once, in a Scottish hotel dining- room, I remember hearing a boy bite an oatcake. The snap echoed round the tall, cold room like a pistol-shot. The other diners swivelled round to stare at the wretched lad, whose ears turned pink.

That silence over food is hard to recall now. In those days, most people who wanted to laugh, talk and drink a lot went to a pub. Today they crowd into restaurants, where the noise level is usually overwhelming: for some restaurant critics, to be able to hear one's own voice is a sign that this bistro or that brasserie is on the way out. My own nostalgia is for those East European hotel dining rooms, huge as a railway-station concourse, where I and my friends were almost the only guests. This combined the best of all worlds. Under the 15W bulb bolted into the chandelier, far from the waiter who sat smoking cigarettes called Sport and watching Dallas repeats on a black-and-white TV set, we could talk as much as we liked and never had to cup the ear or repeat witticisms in a shout. But that world, too, has almost passed away.

It seems to me, in fact, that silence may not exist at all. Silence is just a space filled with sound that may not be audible. Once I stopped at midday in the Namib Desert, switched off the car engine and climbed a mound to listen. At first, nothing: absolute stillness and heat. Then I became slowly aware of sounds beyond silence. The Russian poet Alexander Blok, writing during the Revolution, "felt physically, with my hearing, a great noise of the wind - a continuous noise (probably the noise from the collapse of the old world)".

It was a bit like that. A mingled, droning, complaining song was emerging from the desert, but heard in the marrow of the bones and not through the ears. Or perhaps it was like John Cage's composition "4'33": four minutes and 33 seconds of silence acting as a frame (a cage, indeed) into which anything heard or unheard may enter.

From the mound, my car - an orange Beetle, I remember - looked very small and still. The sense of what was entering my cage became frightening. I threw a noisy pebble to break the spell, and ran down to drive on to Swakopmund.

It isn't surprising that, in distant and quieter times, human beings invented ways of keeping silence in its place. One, which I miss very much, is whistling. Everyone whistled. Or, more correctly, there was always somebody invisible whistling not far away. In the street, beyond the still- closed curtains, there would be a clink of bottles and then "Beautiful Dreamer" done with expert vibrato - and with a diminishing Doppler effect, because men always seemed to be in motion when they whistled. In the railway terminus, between iron roars and crashes, a ribbon of melody would be weaving in and out of the roof girders. Wherever you stood in Glasgow, especially in the early morning before the traffic took over, the quiet was criss-crossed by whistling.

It was a peculiarly British art. Foreigners never mastered it, except for a few concert-hall virtuosi, and rather despised it. They had mouth- organs, accordions or even fine tenor voices. Maybe it was the sheer lack of portable musical instruments that kept the British whistling. Maybe it was just bronchitis, bad for singing. But the coming of the transistor radio, the rise of street noise, the decline of the bicycle, perhaps even better teeth and gapless dentures, eclipsed this popular art.

The other silence-related habit which has almost vanished is whispering. Where did that go? In my childhood, whispering was everywhere: in classrooms, in trains, on walks, and invariably in those chapel-like public eating places. Talking over food in a restaurant was conspicuous and showy, but whispering was all right. It was not invariably thought rude, as it is now, but understood as the voice of the shy.

This habit was universal, not special to Britain. And like many cultural things, it hangs on at the margins. In eastern Europe, even in Ireland, people still whisper. People? It was in a slow train in east Germany, listening to two Mecklenburg ladies with paper parcels hissing away in one another's ear, that the blatantly obvious truth finally dawned on me. Whispering was designed for women.

It belongs to customs like walking behind a husband, or casting down the eyes "modestly" before answering a man's question. Men have always on occasion whispered, when they needed to communicate something secret. But the female habit of conducting public conversations in this curious, sibilant undertone ... that was a way of showing deference in a male world. Women could not quite be required to adopt a servile patois, like the synthetic Famakalo language taught to black miners in South Africa. But they could be discouraged from the full use of their vocal chords.

No regrets for whispering, then. But it has not fallen simply because women have risen. There is too much noise to allow it. Whispering down a carphone or in a Pizza Express is hopeless. Silence, like darkness, has become an unknown commodity in urban life, and children learn about both of them from fairy stories.

It is easy for me to be disparaging about silence. I have a gun-deafness whine in both ears, and can scarcely remember what it was like. But even if it does not strictly exist, I would like to hear its voice again. John Cage borrowed that voice when he wrote, "I have nothing to say. And I am saying it."