Sinclair McKay

Silent night

The magical quiet of Christmas in London

Silent night
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There is one carol that has particular resonance for Londoners: ‘Silent night, holy night’. Just the idea of it can bring on an involuntary shiver of pleasure. In the 36 or so hours between Christmas Day and Boxing Day, after a solid month of the eldritch screeches of office parties and Westfield shopping, we city slickers are suddenly granted something more valuable than gold. The profound quiet — both in the darkness and the daylight — gives us a glimpse of the unsuspected soul of the city. The silence also tells us something about our everyday lives that, even subconsciously, some of us might want to change.

On Christmas morning itself, the transformation is at first subtle; for in the cosy domestic kerfuffle of presents/sprout-boiling/bickering, you don’t quite register what is happening outside. But open the front door and it swiftly creeps up on you; the exhilarating absence. No hiss of car or bus tyres on wet roads; no trains tickety-clicking across viaducts; no dreary drone of planes above. London’s background roar is extinguished. An entire city of eight million people has, seemingly without any kind of coercing, come to a complete and contented halt.

There are also rare occasions in deep winter when the city is covered with thick snow. White Christmases are less noteworthy in rural areas; in London, they have the impact of a revolution. Snow forces Londoners to stop and listen to silence.

Step out for your pre-lunch yomp with the rellies: savour not merely the novelty of being able to walk down the centre of the road, but also the new sensitivity of your ears, straining to find anything to listen to, save for the voices of your companions, or simply the sound of your own footsteps. As dogs with Christmas collars greet each other on Hampstead Heath, their owners look out over the gleaming City towers in the distance and subconsciously clock that on this one day, people — not businesses or banks or frightened economists — hold sway.

London’s everyday noise is the sound of commerce; but in the silence — with the slippery frost making even the dullest pavements glitter — we understand that the city is there for other reasons. You see more clearly the sombre, stern dignity of the City Wren churches; the pride that lay behind the silly gothic spires of St Pancras. In the quiet, you are more aware of the shadows of the city’s history.

Down where I live in the East End, the riverside path at Christmas is preternaturally quiet; the great wide river is noiseless, save for the tiny slurps of small waves sucking at the embankment wall. There is a view that stretches from Limehouse down to Deptford. In the deepening indigo haze of a Christmas twilight, you look at all the little lights in all the windows of all the riverside apartments and you wonder how it is that so many thousands of people can be so very quiet. There seems to be some morphic understanding that everyone is going to keep the noise down.

The brilliance is that by contributing to the silence, even the most determined secularist is, for one day, accidentally engaging in something spiritual: not, perhaps, the silence of prayer, but of reflection. Unlike the Armistice two-minute silence — which increasingly is being urged upon us with a hectoring quality that entirely removes the point of it — this quiet is almost unintentional. By making a noise, Londoners affirm their existence; by being quiet, they tacitly acknowledge the existence of others. As a city crammed with eight million unashamed egoists, we Londoners more than most can feel the power of this Christmas reversal. A day without a loud pronouncement from Boris!

Incidentally, the prime Victorian Christmas egoist Dickens would be horrified by the idea of tranquillity. At the end of A Christmas Carol, we are supposed to rejoice with Scrooge when, on Christmas morning, crowds of people ‘pour forth’ in the streets as the churches are ‘ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell!’ and greetings are yelled above this cacophony. You sense that Dickens was unsettled by silence. Many people are. I had one relative who used to put the television up so loud that the neighbours thought that Phil Mitchell was shouting at them personally.

Noise is territorial. On the tube, every other passenger is not only listening to ipods, but listening with the volume right up. On the streets, people walk up and down delivering shouty monologues into phone earpieces. One call ends and another instantly begins. In warmer months, families on estates mark their territory by opening the windows and letting their music billow through the entire street. No one lives in London for tranquillity. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could find a way of accommodating more quietness in certain corners? Just as so many rare species of birds and fish have returned to the inner city in recent years, wouldn’t it be something if they could be accompanied with patches of sound-proofed sylvan peace? The city is hugely less polluted than it used to be. Can’t the noise pollution come down a little too?

Well, perhaps not. Some of a certain age will recall with sizzling resentment the dreariness of London Sundays gone by, when everything was shut and the hush was compulsory. Once a week was too much. No-one wants that again. Once a year, though, is perfect.