Nihal talks the sound of silence — off the record
Recently, I interviewed a man called Kent Nerburn, author of the truly extraordinary Neither Wolf Nor Dog (£10.99, Canongate), in which a Native American recounts his life.
It’s an unorthodox memoir, full of humour, candour and insight. In one of the chapters, the main protagonist berates the non-Native American narrator about silence. He makes the point that we in the West like to fill silence, in much the same way as we like to dominate the landscape with roads and buildings. He spoke of how, in nature, animals listen and learn by observing and absorbing rather than by keeping the world turning with noise.
Since that interview I have started to think a lot about my relationship with silence. I say ‘relationship’ because silence has a power, the power to overwhelm and unsettle, but also the ability to calm and bring tranquility to a troubled mind.
As a child growing up on the outskirts of a village, silence meant loneliness and isolation. Silence was symbolic of ostracism; elsewhere other young people were enveloped in happiness and human interaction. Our living room let in very little evening light and I remember staring out of that window as fields stretched out and cursing the fact that we lived there.
Those early secondary school years had a lasting effect on me. Perhaps that’s why I became so obsessed with music. Having the radio on, then taping music from the radio, then listening to those tapes on headphones in bed meant the silence was kept at bay.
And filling the silence is all I have done since.
I went from being an MC to being a journalist, from journalist to publicist and from there to being a broadcaster. My profession involves filling your silence.
I am invited every day to draw words onto a blank space, because the blank space is uncomfortable to look at.
The headphones have become an evolutionary tool, reinforcing the idea that the quiet is something to be dominated. The radio may serve no other purpose than to keep you connected to the world and there is nothing wrong with that.
But learning to embrace silence is something I have only started to think of since reading that book – to understand the value of it, especially in the city. The distant sirens, the audible but indecipherable snippets of post-bar revelry and the drone of traffic all help to fill the void.
JUST SAY NOTHING
Even now, as I write this column, lying supine on my sofa, I have nothing around me but the mild static of far-off traffic and the heavy breathing of my dog in another room.
At night, I now like to sleep with a window open, so I hear a soothing hum. It may not be absolute silence, but at least it is the environmental mute button switched on.
We all need to learn to love silence. Wherever you go today, and whatever you do, you should find some time to say nothing, in a place with minimal sound intrusion and learn to enjoy it.
That said, I have to go now as my dog has sensed foxes in the back garden and is making one hell of a racket.
Nihal hosts Afternoon Edition on BBC Radio 5 Live, 1pm-4pm, Monday to Thursday, and the Asian Network’s Big Debate from 10am-1pm on Friday.