A few reflections on living with silence. I’m sitting here in front of my computer, my husband has the hockey game on in another room, which in our open plan apartment might as well be right in front of me, and I have my phone right by me in case of an urgent beep from twitter, instagram or facebook. Or a bing from The New York Times or some advertiser I’ve unsubscribed from three times already, with critical information I need this very second. There’s traffic outside and because of where we live in Vancouver, if the front door is open on a fine day, we hear airplanes coming and going from the local airport. I’ve often noticed that even if I am in the country, walking in a forest or along a river, surrounded by birdsong, I am still never far from noise; a kind of background rumble of the modern world. Someone once described it to me as being on the holodeck. Even though you are in a seemingly in a quiet forest or glade, you can always hear the engines of the Enterprise working away somewhere nearby.
We live in a kind of ‘noise’ where connectedness seems critical at every moment, without realizing that this compelling need to be in touch is entirely specious. No one could be got at like that when I was a child. You had to phone someone, if they were ‘on the telephone’ or go over and see them in person. Or you could write a letter. That was in touch as it got. You could go days without hearing from anyone, and honestly, it was very peaceful.
Lane Winslow lives in a world I still remember, and anyone my age who lived outside an urban center will remember. It was a world where silence, that is to say, freedom from human racket, was still possible. I haven’t even allowed poor Lane a gramophone, or a radio yet, so anxious am I to preserve this remembered silence. I could lie on the wharf, now long gone, and listen to the wonderful green hollow lapping of the water through the cracks between the boards. I would not, as I do now, have to determinedly push away the sound of motorboats, planes, and trucks in order to hear the sound of just nature. It was just there, by the lake, in the garden on an afternoon, on my long exploring walks through the woods.
I never had to question the existence of silence. Human sounds were the interlopers, the exceptions. If a car was coming up the hill into the community, we heard it, and wondered where it was going. When the car stopped, the world reverted to silence, not just to less noise. Now, looking back, I see such long forgotten silence as one of the greatest losses in the world I live in. I remember it as being soothing on a hot afternoon, or terrifying on a thunderous night. I felt a personal relationship with the earth itself. I’m sure that in some mountain fastness, far from anywhere, or in the middle of a great sweep of desert, somewhere on the globe, silence is still to be found, but for most of us, it is a patrimony that is lost forever.
So, I’m sorry Lane. I know you love Beethoven, and would like to know what the weather forecast is, but for the time being I will not be supplying you with anything noisier than a coffee percolator. You’re lucky I’ve let you keep that phone!
On the eve of the release of my second book, Dark In The Darkening Mist I’ve been given, by an accidental question in a radio interview, a chance to look soberly what it might mean to have spies in the family. I have, like all writers, made use of experiences from my own life, and those of my family to enrich the lives of my characters. I have created a character in Lane Winslow who is somewhat modelled on my mother, because she was a phenomenal linguist and beautiful and charming. It was a bonus that she shared some of her stories about her brief episode of spying for the British when she and my father and my older brother lived in South Africa during the Second World War. She tended to describe her war time work as if the whole thing was a colossal lark, and she was comically incompetent.
Now looking back though, I see that there were two kinds of secrecy in my family. The one she employed, of just sharing selective stories that obscured the more difficult and dangerous part of the work, and the absolute silence that my grandfather maintained with his children. My mother, like Lane, was a situational spy. She wanted to help the war effort, and when it was over, was happy to get on with her life.
My grandfather, on the other hand, was what I described during the radio interview at Roundhouse Radio in Vancouver, as a ‘proper spy.’ Intrigued, the radio host asked me to share some stories about his exploits. In the too-long silence that followed, it came to me that she never told me one story about his life as a spy, except the final one, when he died in a Nazi prison during the war. And that was because she had never learned one story from him.
This sobering realization made me think about the impact on families of having someone who works in intelligence with a serious and long-term commitment. My grandfather was ostensibly a businessman, involved in the production of flax and linen. His family would never know anything about the other side of his double life. He would no doubt be away ‘on business’ a good deal, and unable to share even the smallest, insignificant detail of what he ever did.
The silence she maintained about her father was a great dark void in my family history. I knew that he was handsome, had won my grandmother away from a fiancé who was kind and loved her until the end of his life. And I learned that my grandfather was a hard man, and though he may have loved his wife and children in his own way, was hard on them. We know from studies about what makes a good spy that besides the obvious traits such as being good at languages, sharpened survival skills, sang froid, a fluid intelligence, there has to be an ability to tolerate ambivalence, secrecy, dishonesty. A willingness to give up the intimacy of normal family life in return for the clandestine life. Often these traits are honed and developed as survival mechanisms in difficult and unloving childhood lives.
Lane Winslow, we learn in Death In The Darkening Mist, has never gotten on with her father, and finds she must come to terms with what his silence and secrecy mean to her.