I had the loudest day of my life last week, and it started in the library. I’d booked an hour in the reading room, researching a feature for Almanac (there’s shock number two for you. We research.)
The librarian at the desk, I’m almost certain, has two jobs. I think she’s the same woman who stands on a beer crate and shouts ‘come on girls, two skirts for a fiver’ on Bold Street.
She was on the phone to her friend, shrieking about Breaking Bad. And she was the loudest human in Liverpool. I shuffled over to her desk to ask whether there were any ‘quiet spots’. It was the passive aggressive equivalent of me going ‘Shhhhh!’. To a librarian. And the latest example of a city that’s turned itself up to 11. She looked at me like I’d been caught using the pages of my dusty tome for loo paper.
Next up was dinner at Almost Famous – which involved a walk along Church Street, where those two Britain’s Got Talent losers, the blind fella with the dog, a couple of human beatboxes, a blues rock band and some Peruvian panpipers duked it out. Or, rather, their Peavey amps did. At least the white-sheeted bloke has the decency to keep his mouth shut. I threw a quid at him, but refused his outstretched Chupa Chup.
At Almost Famous, I shoved down a filthy burger to the deafening soundtrack of Chaka Khan, and the live percussive accompaniment of jaws dislocating. The usual.
And here’s the thing about cinema volumes – Dolby Laboratories recommend that sound is set at ‘fader level 7’. But level 7 is brain-numbingly loud for most auditoria, so cinemas turn it down, to between 5 and 6. Then, knowing their films will be turned down, film-makers make them even louder to compensate! It’s the same twisted logic that’s resulted in the ‘Loudness War’ on new recorded music – a competitive escalation of volume that benefits no-one (least of all the music itself.)
The film before last, The Conjuring, was described as the film that elicited the noisiest audience behaviour – especially from kids. “It wasn’t that I was being snapped out of the film, but that I had never been offered the opportunity to invest from the beginning,” says film writer Tom Beasley “From the moment I took my seat, they talked constantly and rustled their bags of sweets for implausibly long periods of time. I hoped that this would cease as soon as the movie began, but I was unfortunately very wrong.”
I shared his experience. The kids being especially noisy during the film’s quieter, more suspense-drenched scenes. I’ve come to the conclusion that, these days, many people are just terrified of silence. They just can’t handle it. So much so that, even if they’re forced into it, they need the noise of social media on their phones to help them though.
It’s not that I’m after a world without sound. We’re designed for sensory inputs.
Apparently there’s a room in the US that’s so silent it becomes unbearable to stay in – an ‘anechoic’ chamber that’s 99.99 per cent sound absorbent. And turns you mad.
No, I just don’t feel the need for my ears to be bleeding when I’m trying on some lycra smalls in American Apparel.
So, on Sunday I went to the Quaker Meeting House. I’d heard they like nothing better to do than sit, in silence, and think. And to me, was non-music to my ears. Yes, technically, it’s a house of God, but the prospect of finding, even just for an hour, a little peace, seemed like a reasonable trade off.
It was a deeply curious experience. Thirty or so of us, sitting facing each other in the crucible of Birkenhead’s Meeting House (no hierarchical trappings such as alters, liturgy or services for the Quakers). Occasionally, the silence can be interrupted should someone feel the need to get something off their chest. But this only happened the once, and the rest was silence.
It’s quite remarkable, the stuff that percolates up from your brain’s dusty filing cabinets when you force yourself into a silent space.
At the end of the ‘meeting’ we shook hands, shared tea and biscuits, and I shuffled off into Birkenhead Park. Clear headed and, yeah, probably a bit warm and fuzzy.
“It’s not that we worship the silence, per se,” explains Liverpool Quaker’s Lisa Hoyle, “but of what it can lead to. It’s a stillness. It’s a way to find what some call God, others call the light. The silence allows us to reach that deep, centered place where the mind becomes quiet, and we can really listen.”
“I found it surprisingly difficult,” I admit. “It took me about 50 minutes to settle into the silence. And then it was all over.”
“It’s a discipline,” she says. “And you have to practise every day. Our last meeting house, on Paradise Street, was right next to the bus station, so you can imagine! But if you work at it, you’ll soon come to realise that it doesn’t matter how loud the city is, the silence is within you.”
Where else can you find silence in, or close to, the city?
Deep below the strident 60’s Cathedral, Lutyen’s vast, arched crypt encloses a hushed, ghostly reminder of what could have been. It’s a special, spiritual place, with (oddly for a crypt) lots of light, and space. And silence.
Somehow, Liverpool’s great Gothic Cathedral doesn’t ever feel quiet. All those echoing feet, giggling school kids and, oh yeah, Dexy’s Midnight Runners concerts. But climb to the roof at twilight and the silence (and the city beneath you) is golden.
Take a balloon trip over the Cheshire countryside and the first thing that hits you (if it’s not a pylon) is the silence. It’s like you’re watching a film and your bum’s accidently triggered the mute button. All those bass rumbles disappear and the only sounds that reach you, spookily, are the barkings of dogs, chasing your balloon’s shadow.
Museums and galleries are, of course, peaceful places to lose yourself in for an hour or two. Our current favourite is the Lady Lever – there’s something somnambulant about a stroll around Port Sunlight village – and the Lever’s Pre-Raphaelites are so polite, they’ll never shout at you like a Liechtenstein or Bacon at the Tate.
Sound recordist Gordon Hempton is a silence chaser – he documents some of the world’s most peaceful places for the The One Square Inch of Silence Foundation, in Washington state.
He calls silence ‘an endangered species’. Take a listen to some of his field recordings (on noise cancelling Dre’s of course) and hear the sound of dawn breaking over 1,256 square miles of emptiness. Bliss.
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