Every year, either on Christmas Day or Boxing Day, I wrap up well and head outdoors, to listen to the absence of everyone.
This year it was easy. Instead of going back to visit my Ma as is traditional, I’ve spent it in York. Her pipes are frozen (I mean that literally, not indelicately) and her house is on emergency water rationing, so we decided I’d be imposing, and Christmas be damned. So apart from seeing friends, I’ve spent it doing a little work, finishing reading 4 books (so far), scribbling furious plans for world domination (and doodling tanks in the margins – that’s never a good sign), drinking a little whisky when it gets too cold, doing as little online as I could possibly get away with…and going for a long, quiet walk.
The lovely thing about this time of year is that everyone is indoors. Step outside, and it’s Day Of The Triffids territory. There’s nobody about and it’s deliciously weird. When cars go by, you don’t just hear the engine, you hear the crackling scrunch of ice under the wheels, the judder of the exhaust pipe, the *TIK TIK* of indicators. Streetlights buzz. When you eke out a single footstep, stepping forward in slow motion, you hear how your heel digs in before the rest of your foot flattens before that last little crunch as your toes scoop your shoe under you and your foot rises. You hear melting snow, whistling wind, freshly-parked cars pinking as the metal cools.
And after a while, you catch…what’s the sonic equivalent of a glimpse?….you hear just the hint of the myriad soft sounds of the world that we, with our machinery-brutalised ears, like to refer to as ‘silence’ – a misnomer, if ever I heard one.
This year I padded down to the river, the paths so frozen my walking-boots sound like ripping velcro.
I’ve been reading Gordon Hempton’s truly extraordinary One Square Inch Of Silence, a road-trip taken by an award-winning acoustic ecologist who wants to document what an unholy racket the human race is making of the world. (Seriously, get it, it’s magical). And one thing it’s doing it making me listen for sounds from the unlikeliest things. Things that sound very different when they’re cold. Hedges hiss with invisible, airborne ice particles. Frozen concrete eats holes in the ambient noise, making you aware of how raucous silence is only because it’s been replaced with a muffled deadness. Concrete sounds ugly.
And then there’s the river Ouse. Normally it’d be a medley of thundering, murmuring, slapping and gurgling as the Vale of York shoves its excess rainwater and snowmelt under York’s five bridges and out towards the coast. But right now, it’s frozen over. It’s an eerie sight, but if you listen closely, it sounds even eerier : the hiss of cold overlaying a muffled sticky thumping noise, like distant gulps…
Well, that and the sound of idiots trying to get themselves killed. (I saw a bit of that going on. Haven’t they seen The Omen II? What part of the ice hockey scene isn’t the horriblest thing they ever saw?)
I intend to do a lot of listening this year. Sitting in coffee shops, on park benches, on planes, on boats, as I’m cycling along, out the window of trains. Let’s call this acoustic travel (because if there’s one thing a travel blogger loves, it’s a buzz-phrase where one isn’t really needed). I intend to acoustically travel my ears off this year.
And if you meet me for a drink in 2011 – and believe me, I intend to meet all of you if I can possibly manage it – if I suddenly stop talking, put my finger to my lips and earnestly shhhh you, silently put my drink down and stare into the middle distance with an expression of the utmost concentration…you know what’s going on.
Yes. I’ve gone mad.