Jason Goodwin: ‘Silence is like a tune you’ve heard before, but it’s played differently every time’

A moment of pure tranquility in a November field puts our columnist Jason Goodwin in mind of the meaningfulness of silence.

I stopped on the hill. There had been a hard frost in the night, the first deep frost of autumn. The dogs cantered on cold paws across grass rimed with ice. Everything sparkled in the morning sun. The sky was cloudless, a pale November blue.

The valley flowed away at my feet, hill slotted into humpbacked hill. Standing in the rut of the track, I could just make out our neighbour John doing his rounds of the longhorns across the valley, grinding uphill on his swaying Mule, cube of red against the green.

In the bottoms, the trees were turning, the beeches reddened and the larches skeletal and spare. From down the valley came the toc! toc! of a post being driven into the ground and the carolling of pheasants in the woods.

The dogs kept going at first, the poodle skipping round my feet; Stan, 20 yards off, with a nose poised above a tussock of long grass; Bridie, his mother, trotting purposefully ahead along the track. Then, one by one, they stopped, too, while

I stood with the warmth of sun on my back.

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‘If I moved, even to shift my weight from one foot to another, it would raise a clamour loud as coals in a chute’

The growl of John’s engine drifted to me in snatches. In the hedges, mistle thrushes whirred their football rattles. The miniature poodle described her brushwork in the grass, swift swishes against the leaves as she fossicked for mice. The lurchers stood watching, sometimes looking up for explanation, watching me listen. A collar jangled softly.

Gradually, as I grew attuned to the silence, I heard the creaking of the grass as it was struck by the rising sun, easing out of its prison of frost. A jay screamed in a distant wood and, beyond, I could hear birds and the anguished bellow of an cow.

The silence prickled like sand. As I listened to the labouring of my own breath, I thought that if I moved, even to shift my weight from one foot to another, it would raise a clamour loud as coals in a chute, so a minute passed, maybe two, of the November morning.

Silence is like a tune you’ve heard before, but it’s played differently every time. The poet Edward Thomas described with eerie prescience a minute of silence which enveloped the station at Adlestrop, in June 1914:

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform.

Two months later, a maelstrom of noise and death broke over Europe and Thomas’s poem would come to stand for a lost moment of peace and silence and security:

Yes. I remember Adlestrop –

The name, because one afternoon

Of heat the express-train drew up there

Unwontedly. It was late June.

Thomas died at Arras in April 1917, killed outright by a bullet to the heart, which silently found him across the pandemonium of the battlefield. His widow, and his readers, learned another story.

To spare her anguish, she was told that he had died when the concussive blast of an exploding shell tore out his life-breath, leaving his body unmarked, unbloodied. Noise had killed him, in effect – that was the comforting myth. It was Easter Monday; 160,000 British troops and 125,000 Germans fell in the battle, which lasted over a month and resulted in stalemate.

A pheasant whirred from its hiding-place in the tussock and the dog jumped back. The two-minute silence was over.

It wasn’t yet the 11th, just an ordinary November day, the silence impromptu, the remembrance unbidden. When the dogs had stirred, the ordinary noise came washing back and we continued our walk, downhill, into the trees.