Silence Is Golden

Yet, on Sundays and public holidays, Lombard Street falls quiet. Throughout the old City, silence returns.

The history of silence is one of London’s secrets. It has been said of the city that its most glorious aspects are concealed, and that observation is wonderfully well fitted to account for the nature of silence in London. It comes upon the pedestrian, or traveller, suddenly and unexpectedly; it momentarily bathes the senses, as if going from bright light into a darkened room. Yet if London sound is that of energy and animation, silence must therefore be an ambiguous presence within city life. It may offer peace and tranquillity, but it may also suggest absence of being. It may be a negative force. The city’s history is striated with moments of silence: the silence of the surrounding country when the anonymous poet of London Lickpenny leaves Cheapside in 1390, the silence of the civic assembly when Richard III was first proposed as king in 1483, the silence of desolation after the Fire in 1666.

There was the silence of sixteenth-century London, after the day’s last cry at the stroke of midnight:

Looke well to your locke,

Your fier and your light,

And so good-night.

Of course the London night was not wholly quiet. What London night ever is, or ever will be? It is the contrast that is significant, in an almost theatrical sense, because it marks an interdiction upon the natural ardour of the citizens. In that sense the silence of London is indeed unnatural. There is a mid-seventeenth-century poem by Abraham Cowley which intimates that, on the departure of all the wicked and the foolish, the city would become “a solitude almost,” the implied silence suggesting here that noise and bustle are indistinguishable from sinfulness or folly. In that sense London could never be a silent city.

The absence of noise has also been marked as yet another contrast in an endlessly contrasting place. An eighteenth-century traveller observed that in the smaller streets off the Strand, running down to the Thames, there was “so pleasing a calm” that it struck the senses. This is a constant refrain. When the American connoisseur of antiquity, Washington Irving, wandered through the grounds of the Temple, off Fleet Street, “strangely situated in the very centre of sordid traffic,” he entered the silence of the chapel of the Knights Templar. “I do not know a more impressive lesson for the man of the world,” he wrote, “than thus suddenly to turn aside from the high way of busy money seeking life and sit down among these shadowy sepulchres, where all is twilight, dust and forgetfulness.” Here silence becomes an intimation of eternity, with the suggestion that London once emerged from a great silence and will one day return to it.

The great locus solus of silence, amid the overbearing noise of nineteenth-century London, acquired therefore an almost sacred status. Another American writer of that century, Nathaniel Hawthorne, entered it, having gone astray in Holborn. He walked “through an arched entrance, over which was ‘Staple Inn’ … but in a court opening inwards from this was a surrounding seclusion of quiet dwelling houses … there was not a quieter spot in England than this. In all the hundreds of years since London was built, it has not been able to sweep its roaring tide over that little island of quiet.” Silence has derived its power here by being able to withstand the sound of London, and in the process has itself acquired a kind of immensity–“there was not a quieter spot in England.”

Dickens knew the same courtyard well and employed it in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. “It is one of those nooks, the turning into which out of the clashing street imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton in his ears and velvet soles on his boots. It is one of those nooks where a few smoky sparrows twitter in smoky trees, as though they called to one another, ‘Let’s play at country.’” There is almost a theatrical aspect to this silence, therefore, as if it had been tainted by the artificiality of London. It is not a natural silence but a “play,” one of a series of violent contrasts which the inhabitants of London must endure. It is in that sense wholly ambiguous; it may provoke peaceful contemplation, or it may arouse anxiety.

When Hawthorne continued his pilgrimage to the centres of silence—a journey by an antiquarian determined to prove that “modern” London had not obtained full mastery over the silent past—he entered the precincts of Gray’s Inn. “It is very strange to find so much of ancient quietude right in the monster city’s very jaws,” he wrote, confirming his intuition that noise is a consequence of inattention or ignorance. It is silence which partakes of the past, and redeems the present. “Nothing else in London is so like the effect of a spell, as to pass under one of these archways, and find yourself transported from the jumble, rush, tumult, uproar, as if an age of weekdays condensed into the present hour, into what seems an eternal Sabbath.” So silence is the equivalent of the holy days of rest. Silence is the sound of not working, not making money.

But this again is ambiguous since the Sunday of London was known for its altogether dismal aspect, gloomy and generally disheartening. So does silence itself partake of this dreariness? In London the absence of noise, and activity, may be peculiarly enervating. Gabriel Mourey, a French traveller of the nineteenth century, remarked that on a Sunday “it is like a dead city; all trace of life and activity of the past six days has vanished.” Everyone noticed the change. It was “horrible,” and manifested a contrast which no other place on earth could afford. Once more the uniqueness of this sudden transition is being emphasised, so that even silence itself reflects the magniloquence of nineteenth-century London.

Yet there are other forms of silence which seem to presage activity. The author of The Little World of London recognised, and heard, them all. There was the moment of early dawn, a brief period of stillness before the distant noise “of horses’ hooves and grinding wheels” marked the awakening of the city into life. And then, at night, “a dead sepulchral silence seems to reign in the deserted thoroughfares, where but a few hours ago the ear was distracted by every variety of sounds.” This “stillness so sudden and complete … has a solemn suggestiveness,” containing within itself the idea of death as the “sudden and complete” surcease. The nature of the nineteenth-century city was such that it invited and provoked such “solemn” contemplation, precisely because it included the elements of life and death within itself. This is not the silence of the countryside, in other words, where repose seems natural and unforced. The silence of London is an active element; it is filled with an obvious absence (of people, of business) and is therefore filled with presence. It is a teeming silence.

That is why it can actually awake the sleeper. An inhabitant of Cheapside was asked by a London reporter how he knew when it was past two in the morning. “He will tell you, as he has told us, that the silence of the City sometimes wakes him at that hour.” Silence can sound like an alarm. Henry Mayhew noted the “almost painful silence that everywhere prevailed” in certain deserted London alleys, as if the absence of sound provoked mental or physical suffering. Silence can also be associated with what the poet James Thomson described as “the Doom of a City.” Many images abound of silent stone. The City at night, “the city of the dead” as it has been called, has been seen to resemble “a prehistoric forest of stone.” One writer within the great volumes of London, edited by Charles Knight and published in 1841, contemplated the city “with its streets silent and every house untenanted—how should we be excited and thrilled by so touching a sight!” The advent of this silence strangely excites him, as if it represents the erasure of all human energy.

The silence of the nineteenth-century city can induce an almost spiritual sense of transcendence; Matthew Arnold wrote some lines in Kensington Gardens, where peace and silence prevailed over “men’s impious roar” and the “city’s hum”:

Calm Soul of all things! make it mine

To feel, amid the city’s jar,

That there abides a peace of thine,

Man did not make, and cannot mar.

So the “soul of all things” is to be recognised within this silence. Charles Lamb considered it to be a token of all lost and past things, while others believed it to be an emanation or manifestation of that which is secret and hidden. The silence then becomes another aspect of what a contemporary critic has described as “London’s unknowability.” Certainly, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was an obscure fascination for what Julian Wolfreys in Writing London has called “the hidden court, the forgotten square, the unobserved portico” as if the mystery of London exists within its silence. It is the mystery which Whistler observed in his Nocturnes, and which generations of Londoners have encountered in silent streets and strange byways.

Fountain Court, in the Temple, is one such sacred spot that has survived until the beginning of the twenty-first century; its solace seems to be unchanging. The silence of Tower Hamlets cemetery, in the middle of the East End, is also profound and permanent; there is silence in the square by St. Alban the Martyr, off busy Holborn, and there is a sudden silence in Keystone Crescent off the Caledonian Road. There is the silence of Kerry Street in Kentish Town, of Courtenay Square off Kennington Lane, of Arnold Circus in Shoreditch. And then there is the silence of the outer suburbs, waiting to be born within the encroaching and approaching noise of London.

Perhaps these quarters of silence are necessary for the harmony of the city itself; perhaps it needs its antithesis in order properly to define itself. It is like the quiet of the dead upon whom London rests, the silence as a token of transience and eventual dissolution. So oblivion and wakefulness, silence and sound, will always accompany each other in the life of the city. As it is written in that great urban poem of the late nineteenth century, The City of Dreadful Night,

Thus step for step with lonely sounding feet

We travelled many a long dim silent street.

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