This week is for many people, certainly those like me who expect 15 people on Christmas Day, the busiest in the year. It must be planned like a military campaign - the shopping, the assigning of tasks, the borrowing of chairs, the checking of laun dered tablecloths and polished silver, the preparation, cooking and serving of Christmas lunch, the clearing-up after. Yet in the midst of this (I admit) enjoyable preparatory bustle, something in me yearns for silence.
I remember when I was at Oxford, an avid reader of the student newspaper, Cherwell, and the weekly university magazine, Isis, feeling both cheated and impressed one week when Cherwell's editorial space was empty. A single sentence beneath it said: "The editor has nothing to write about this week."
Part of me knew it was a cop-out; he was too busy or too lazy to come up with his 500 words of comment on the world of Oxford or the supposedly larger world outside. Yet, oddly, that "editorial" is the only one I remember from my three years as an undergraduate.
Silence is the rarest quality in my world. I wake up every day to the sound of car alarms, delivery vans, tourist coaches, and six lanes of traffic streaming down the Cromwell Road ... or, if I have a really early start, to the insistent whining of the alarm clock. I stagger into the kitchen, fill the kettle and turn on the wireless. Unknown voices from all over the world relay the news, and already my brain is ticking over: should I jot that down? can I use that? quote him? contact her? I check my fax machine for overnight transatlantic faxes; the telephone for messages. Before I have even drunk my first strong cup of coffee, I may already have communicated with people thousands of miles away. A quiet start to the morning? Are you
Sitting here now, in our splendid new offices at Canary Wharf, I am scarcely aware of the burning sunset dropping into darkness behind my back, or the street-lamps twinkling into night-life 18 floors below. If I walked the few steps to the window, I could look 15 miles in any direction and see London paling towards the horizon. Do I do any of these things? Of course not: I am too busy talking into my phone, checking out lists, answering questions, counting words and, just below that level of mental acti vity, worrying about those 15 for Christmas - have I catered for enough people? bought the right presents? above all, is there enough time?
I have a French friend, a peasant farmer aged 67, who has never been out of France and rarely travelled more than 50 miles from the village where he was born. He spends most of his working life in a silence broken only by the sound of the implements or machinery he is using to plant or cut down trees, sow, mow or plough fields, pick grapes or walnuts. His world must sound remarkably like the world of 500 years ago.
He and I are friends, good friends, but my world would be incomprehensible to him and I never really try to explain it. He would think it quite mad, and when I am in France, I agree with him.
When I am in France I reflect, think, read, converse and listen with a depth and intensity that my London life simply doesn't allow. A friend wrote, in a letter enclosed with her Christmas card: "Too much listening, watching and competing; not nearly enough hearing, seeing and supporting. And when did you last have time for day-dreaming? I don't mean fantasising, I mean day-dreaming. Good word, that."
How I agree! Our lives, minds, senses are filled from dawn till bed-time with urgent, immediate tasks, but above all with a deafening cacophony of noise. Try asking for the music to be turned off in a restaurant or cafe so you can talk without the accompaniment of sentimental carols or raucous or treacly pop music. You are treated like a pariah. Who but a freak could want a world without non-stop, meaningless, so-called "music"? Who would voluntarily risk silence, with - is the implication - its necessary accompaniment, boredom?
I remember boredom when I was a child. My parents didn't have television (few middle-class people did in the Fifties) and, apart from Children's Hour at 5pm, I didn't listen to the wireless a great deal. Instead there were aching empty hours - hours, I belatedly realise, during which I observed, reflected and stored away the images and memories that have sustained me ever since as a writer.
Today's children never have a chance to be bored. They come home from school, an outing or a pantomime and start flicking the channel changer even while they are still tearing their coats off. The idea that they might hang around, fidget, sigh, and refl e ct on what they have just done is ludicrous.
It is hard to think in the midst of noise, especially mass noise; noise unconnected with your own activities. Consequently, many people seem to have stopped thinking. I have. I think by conversing or writing. But sessions of still, silent thought - whatever are they? I plan, of course; make lists; jot down phone numbers, notes and memos to self. But the notion of abstract reflection unconnected with immediate action; the slow marinading of experience and observation seems like a strange luxury, to be wistfully contemplated but ... no, not for the likes of me.
That is why I wish you all, this Christmas, a calm and peaceable day and silent night.
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