Martin Rowson cartoon of Laurie Taylor

This article is from the Spring 2014 issue of New Humanist magazine. You can subscribe here.

No doubt all long-term jobs carry some sort of physical or psychological risk, the possibility of contracting Housemaid’s Knee or Plumber’s Thumb or Writer’s Cramp or that rather wonderful impediment that comedian Jimmy James once identified as an occupational hazard for those who regularly worked in a fish and chip shop: Fish Batterer’s Elbow. But I’ve always considered myself immune to any such development. How might the modest task of talking on the radio for 20 minutes a week have any permanent effect upon one’s constitution?

It was Derek who first dented this confidence. I’d been round to his place for a small dinner party in honour of his wife, Diane, who’d recently recovered from a bout of agoraphobia. Apart from some slight confusion over whether or not tomato juice was kosher, all had gone rather well. But it seemed that Derek had been less than impressed by the part I’d played.

“Quite honestly,” he told me over a pint in The Yorkshire Grey, “I thought you were never going to shut up. You didn’t stop talking for a single moment.”

“But I only spoke when nobody else was speaking. I was filling the awkward silences.”

“No, you weren’t. You were trampling over the significant pauses. You were filling meaningful gaps with meaningless chatter. You didn’t even keep quiet during that rather special dinner moment when people were taking their very first taste of Diane’s venison stew. Even before you’d picked up your knife and fork you were saying that my wife must let you have the recipe and that you’d once run over a deer in Richmond Park and tried to get it into the boot of your car but it wouldn’t fit properly so you’d had to drive around the park with the antlers sticking out until you found a gamekeeper. You know your problem? You can’t abide silence.”

It was only when I got home later and found myself gently interrupting my partner’s attempts to finish The Luminaries with the story of a very funny thing that had happened to me on my way to Broadcasting House that I suddenly recognised the full import of Derek’s insistence that I couldn’t stand silence. It explained so much; in particular my discomfiture at classical concerts.

There I am happily chatting away to my partner as the orchestra takes the stage, when suddenly they all stop fiddling with their instruments and lean back in their chairs. There’s not a sound to be heard. We’re all waiting for the leader to arrive. In total silence.

At such moments I find myself staring aggressively at the door leading to the backstage area. Where is the bleeding leader? Is he waiting for the silence to set like concrete? Already I can feel a terrible shout forming in the back of my throat. At any second now I’m going to break this unbearable silence. At any second now I’m going to shout something foul and disruptive: “Come on out, you bastard. We know you’re there. Why are we waiting?”

It’s only since Derek pointed out my fear of silence that I’ve come to realise that it is indeed an occupational illness, a fear derived solely from radio’s abhorrence of dead time, the absolute necessity even when faced by an almost mute interviewee to fill up the space with some sort of talk. It must be why I’ve spent so much of my adult life avoiding Beckett plays, Trappist monks, John Cage, spiritual retreats, snooker telecasts, Remembrance Sunday mornings and Marcel Marceau.

I have, of course, taken some professional advice about my condition. A psychoanalyst explained after just two sessions that although Freudian analysis liked to describe itself as the talking cure, he personally drew the line at interminable chatter and would therefore prefer it if I took my voice and my unconscious elsewhere.

I still can’t escape the sense that silence is ominous, that it is a presentiment of doom. I can’t accept that it is ever more meaningful than talk, that it is ever comforting and reassuring. Which is why I found little consolation at all in Derek’s recitation of the story about the man who went out driving with his wife and was stopped by the police who told him that his wife had fallen out of the car at the last corner. “Thank God for that,” said the man. “For a moment I thought I’d gone deaf.”