The Sound & Value of Silence

A little under five years ago I launched myself into a year of studying for an HNC in Music Production; almost immediately after I’d finished I got a persistent ear infection which a) continues to this day and b) has definitely robbed me of my higher-frequency hearing, basically the opposite of what you want if you’re trying to work as a sound engineer.

Both before and since then I’ve worked in a number of offices, in which I’ve worn a variety of headphones (before settling, post-HNC, on AKG K271 Mkii – ironically I have been stopped several times by sound engineers because of these headphones, as they’re apparently favoured by live sound people), for the purpose of shutting out the sounds of an office and letting me concentrate.

The coal-face of employment

Typical complaints from friends in office jobs have been that they’re too quiet and no one talks to each other.

Allow me to present my counter-argument:

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to work accurately and with speed when everyone around you is gabbling meaninglessly about what they watched on TV last night?

People bellow things to each other that could be emailed. People ask inane questions for the sake of making a noise. Phones ring. Doors slam. At my last workplace, which was a university (in which for some mad reason we were required to work in the same buildings the students despite having nothing to do with them, and to work with our office door open), the fire door continually slammed; people wandered in to yell at us about where their lectures were. Four years of intermittently working at various universities will grind down your goodwill towards seekers of further education in a way that no amount of drunken rag week incursions into evening life will ever manage.

There was a window, brief and glorious, into what work could be like: I spent a month in a basement of a research and teaching hospital, archiving their samples for shipment to a less asbestos-filled, out-of-the-way location. I worked with one other person, who sat in a different room to me: my supervisor came down once a day to check if we had enough boxes. Twice a day we crawled up the stairs to a staff kitchen where we sat in silence with tea and looked out of the window at daylight.

I am sure to the kind of people who complain of offices where no one ever talks to each other, this sounds like hell, but we did also manage to discuss perfume-making, 1980s queer literature, how to learn Spanish, and the relative merits of different types of dust mask. We just didn’t do it constantly.

Now, this year, I’ve begun another job: it is in a large, open-plan office, and there are a lot of people working on the same shift. One would expect a lot of noise, barring two things:

  1. It’s at night, and
  2. The workload is heavy.

This means that in practice, the place is more-or-less silent. People wear headphones, or they don’t, but no one starts up endless idle chit-chat. No one lurks around your desk when you’re trying to concentrate and asks meaninglessly jovial questions about your personal life. People work, and then they go home.

Cathedrals and Temple

One of the real purposes of places of worship being open between ceremonies of worship, so that any old mug can wander in, I am sure, is so that said mug can enjoy for a moment the quiet and seclusion of a place removed from daily life and from continual conversation. There is a general social agreement that we don’t raise our voices inside large stone buildings; less so in museums and art galleries, where a normal level of conversation is permissible, but in cathedrals and churches the requirements of non-disturbance hold sway. Wandering into St Lawrence Jewry out of the rain drags the wanderer out of the noise of the city (although admittedly the the City tends to be as silent as a grave on the weekends, part of its Saturday and Sunday appeal) and into hoped-for contemplation.

Meditation rooms are characterised by their silence; prayer chapels ask that we respectfully allow others to exist without being continually reminded that everyone around them has thoughts and opinions. Libraries, the highest form of temple, preserve a quiet study room into which cheerfully chatting weekday mums and excited children armed with the latest child fantasy franchise do not enter: I agree with the consensus of librarians in this country that libraries are not for miserable silence, but I applaud the decision to allow one secluded area for those of us who don’t find silence miserable at all, too.

And so on a recent history walk out of this book, I dragged my willing accomplice through the four Inns of Court and the no-longer extant former Inns of Chancery, and discovered that there are patches of silence waiting in busy, noisy London, wherever you go.

The Inns of Court seem like tiny fiefdoms, lawyerish enclaves removed from the rest of the city by enclosing buildings and roads which frequently have large wooden or metal doors drawn across them to prevent traffic from entering. They boast some of the oldest buildings in the city, and have some of the longest continuous use of any area of the city, having begun their legal trading well before the Tudor period.

At Lincoln’s Inn you may find Old Hall and its chapel (only open on weekday lunchtimes), with beautiful vaults:

Old Hall

To the South of Lincoln’s Inn and New Hall there is a bizarre and elderly pub called the Seven Stars, with a window display of satirical taxidermy, a phrase I have fallen in love with and wish to have more opportunities to abuse:

The Cabinet of Largesse


South again, on the Strand, there is the bewildering and ostentatious lobby of a Lloyd’s Bank, intended only as a space to hold a couple of ATMs:

Often when I’ve gone to withdraw money I’ve thought “I wish this place had a fountain and pillars and mirrors and mosaics”. Petition for more unnecessarily fancy ATM lobbies!

But it is with the Inns of Court of Inner, Middle, and Outer Temple that I wish to concern myself, because those are the places in which the whole presence of the city shrinks to the glimpse you catch on the far side of the river, and the slow indignant traffic crawling along Embankment towards and from Blackfriars. In Middle Temple lies Fountain Court, where there is:

A fountain, which is illuminated at night.

And a fascinating Tudor hall replete with the requisite garish stained glass windows and massive red and white roses: having grown up a stone’s throw from Buckland Abbey (assuming you can throw a stone about five miles, and have terrific aim), which boasts an excellent quantity of Tudor remnants, the presence of Middle Temple’s hall is quietly comforting.  When night falls, if you stand with your back to the fountain and face the river, the blue lights strung in the branches of the trees at Gabriel’s Wharf are visible as an icy fuzz below the Oxo tower.

Temple Church, a late 12th-century edifice built by the Knights Templar and restored after significant damage in WWII (a phrase you will get fucking sick of as soon as you start looking into the history of London with any interest: “significant damage in WWII”), presides over another nearby courtyard. In Pump Court, glimpsed here on Google Street View between the pillars of Pump Court Cloisters, from a vantage point beside Temple Church, red-berried trees rise from the paving slabs. It is blissfully,  perfectly silent, especially after the sun goes down.

Pump Court Cloisters, Middle Temple
Pump Court Cloisters, Middle Temple

There is something to be said for the privilege and power accrued by hundreds of generations of lawyers beavering over precedents in the same spot: it makes for elegant, undisturbed premises ripe for clearing your head.

The merit

I’ve waxed wrath and often on the topic of requiring a comforting blanket of aggressive sound to cover up the aggressive sounds of the world: the AKG K271s are a security blanket preserving the mind from unnecessary interruptions and unwanted conversation as much as they are the delivery mechanism for iPod-borne pace-setters. Noise, particularly the rhythmic and repetitive kind, has a profound neurological importance.

But constantly looking for meaning in every bang, bump, misheard mumble and distance rumble isn’t a blueprint for problem-solving, nor for planning, nor for peace of mind. Sometimes it’s necessary for whatever lies in place of a soul or a basic sense of being individually human, to have the attendant thumps and crunches of existence whittled away to bird song, or the vacant silence of an empty stone hall.

Soon it will be spring, and time for spring cleaning both home and head, and I look forward to approaching the latter in one of London’s many silent spaces.




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