When the silence is deafening

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It’s a very well known phrase – and applicable in so many different places and guises. As oxymorons go it’s one which, when first encountered, perhaps makes the listener stop and think – which is precisely what it’s meant to do, making it far more effective in the process. But in today’s 24/7 world of the evermore competitive clamour for attention, does it still hold good – and is it effective?

Up until about a month ago the amount of noise (by which I don’t mean aural alone) in my life was really quite pervasive. In order to deliver my work to the standard I that I had myself set, I had always needed to find time to prospect for stories, engage with possible guests, research my content, record my interviews (invariably in line with someone else’s availability in order to guarantee their participation) and then edit the results of all that preparation down to a few scant minutes of airtime, creating the finished article which I then delivered to my audience. Along the way I had always to consider the listener first and the relevance of what any of my stories held for to them whilst at the same time trying to inform and entertain. I also had to consider legality in the telling of the stories I created, my tone, my relationship with my guests and how I presented them so that they benefited from appearing on the show, as well as a multitude of other parameters besides. It certainly wasn’t a question of me arriving, sitting down, pressing a button and rattlling through the next four hours. A single Saturday Breakfast Show would normally involve about twenty hours of production – more if I had to travel to meet and record with my guests. Work it back into an hourly rate of pay and I assure you that, as a freelancer, my income level was well below that of the National Living Wage – but that is a subject for another time.

Now that all that has gone (I was finally switched off and expunged as a contributor last weekend), I find myself working harder in some respects, but with more time to achieve what I do in others. I have just started work on a couple of new projects. One is already in production with me in front of a camera doing something I used to do a long time ago. The other is some way off delivering an income because I am retraining for a specific qualification in order to then work closely with a variety of people and organisations in a particular role. I still create podcasts and corporate content for a range of commercial clients (have a look at www.jgmediaservices.co.uk), and I very much enjoy hosting the variety of events and ceremonies that I do both here and further afield. I thrive on being busy and working from home – it means that I can get a lot done in a comparatively condensed period of time. I hate being inactive and can feel the energy draining from me when the diary looks quiet - so I try to fill it as full as I can.

All of which returns me to the title of this piece.

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Tranquility on the water - peace and quiet on the Grand Union Canal Tranquility on the water - peace and quiet on the Grand Union Canal
Tranquility on the water - peace and quiet on the Grand Union Canal

Last Sunday, Lois and I took a couple of hours out to have afternoon tea on a volunteer run electric community narrowboat (www.bmkwaterway.org/electra) as it glided silently - and I do mean silently - along the Grand Union Canal, starting out from its pontoon base at Campbell Wharf in Milton Keynes. The absence of noise from a diesel engine and instead the propulsion of an electric motor buried somewhere beneath our feet meant that we could take in the sounds of the countryside above instead – birds in trees, ducks landing from flight onto the surface of the canal in front of us and the muffled conversations of other canal users in their vessels. I found myself leaving our small table and taking time to just stand quietly in the bow, watching the oncoming vista change constantly at just 4 knots. You might recall the 2015 BBC series which had a camera mounted to the front of a narrowboat. That was all there was to it. With no commentary or presenter, ‘The Canal Trip’ offered nothing more than that single person, real time view filmed non-stop over several hours – 600,000 tuned in to watch it. Now, on the Grand Union, I found my mind emptying of all the things that I had previously had spinning there and allowing instead a palpable sense of calm to fill the space. I could have willingly continued like that for hours and, if it were my boat, headed up to and beyond this county. Instead and with time against us we were reluctantly obliged to turn for home again. Silently.

The same thing happened this morning when I took Ella for a short walk in the fields close by. About a quarter of a mile from the nearest road, literally all I could hear was the sound of a chainsaw working on a farm in the next valley about a mile away and half a dozen surprised pheasants in front of me, scared up and out of the field of stubble as Ella crashed through it towards them as fast as her 6 month old legs would carry her. Again I felt all thoughts of a busy week ahead of me being actively pushed aside, with an awareness that this was ‘me’ time and that I’d be the more productive for taking it – I have been too. Strange as it might sound, I found myself actively listening to the absence of noise and experiencing instead the sound of an all-enveloping silence. It was truly energising and at an almost molecular level – and here I am telling you about it.

Buckinghamshire isn’t the only county with electric boats – or places where you can walk in silence and drink in what the countryside has to offer. Here in Northamptonshire there is the excellent Crusader Community Boating charity (www.crusadercommunityboating.org.uk) which offers a similar range of services to Electra in MK. There’s been recent talk – not for the first time - of the possibility of a taxi boat service starting up somewhere on the Nene, although I believe that it’s a long way off becoming a reality. I would absolutely back it though – you see a completely different perspective of the county from the water and even if you weren’t to be on a boat, a walk along a towpath is almost as good for heart and soul.

Why not try the deafening sensation of a little silence yourself this week? You’ll be amazed by what you hear…