Sometime ago I was talking to Carolyn, an old friend and colleague, about the challenges of spending Christmas Day on your own and the consequent trepidation that I was feeling. As you would expect from such an experienced coach and counsellor, she wasn’t going to let me get away with that for long, and we ended the call with me having made her two promises. (How does she do that?)
The first was that I would get out and about with my camera and vicariously experience other people’s pleasure; seeing kids out and about with new toys and bicycles. The second was that I should do whatever it took to enjoy the full Christmas experience at home, so should stock up with food, drink, films and the TV schedule and keep myself occupied accordingly.
Appropriately enough on a day when the rules of time and space have been rewritten, I seemed to get my timings wrong for the first element. I didn’t get up too soon, or rather, once I’d texted the one person I know would be at work at 7.30 today, I went back to bed and did resurface too soon. I had a leisurely breakfast, showered and dressed, prepared some food for later and only then did I pick up the MKIII and head for Durham. It was 10.05 when I arrived and even though I then undertook another of the day’s text conversations it was still way too early for signs of life in the city. I wasn’t quite alone, there were the odd couple strolling here and there, an occasional elderly churchgoer, and of course some Chinese students taking pictures of each other.
These aside the roads, streets and alleyways were largely devoid of life,
and even the great edifice of worship itself stood silent with not a carol or chorister to be heard, and while the Wear was in spate from recent rains, it flowed silently and unbroken by oar or hull.
As I left the city to prepare my lunch, the nature of my timing error became apparent as a steady stream of vehicles developed, all bound for the Cathedral. I’m guessing that the morning communion service was at 11.00. Still I was not downcast. The clear skies and fresh air had done the trick, and I even had time for a sneaky selfie in a barber shop window. Given the time of year I should have photoshopped a large red “E” to the right.
I had no problem with the second part of Carolyn’s advice however!
I’ve spent a lot of timing musing on silence recently, and began thinking about how I would try to convey silence in a photograph. Most of us would define it as the absence of sound, so logically the photographic equivalent would be an absence of light. Not really what I wanted to achieve because it’s obvious, lacks any degree of skill or decision-making, and besides which as far as art is concerned Mark Rothko‘s chapel has pretty much cornered the market in large blocks of darkness.
I talked to my friend Jane about silence and its effects and we agreed that whilst a desolate landscape might be silent of human input you wouldn’t be able to prevent nature’s voice from being heard through wind noise, birdsong, water movement etc, and this is interesting because we when we talk about silence it’s something that many of us will never truly achieve.
A recent discussion on the subject that I heard gave truth to this. The participants were John Francis (the Planetwalker), an environmentalist who gave up speaking for several years, Galya Morrell, a Russian artist who grew up in the harshness of the arctic circle, and Diarmaid MacCulloch who has written a book on the role of silence in Christianity. As the discussion progressed it was clear that none had experienced absolute silence, a fact demonstrated by the story told by Morrell in which she described an encounter with a polar bear when she was pregnant. The predator was easily close enough to attack but did not and both parties stood silently watching one another. Well actually although she described the encounter as silent, she then went on to describe how in that moment she was able to hear her own heartbeat, her baby’s and more remarkably the bear’s! Whilst I’m dubious about the last of these I’m sure she would have heard it breathing at least. So even in that moment there wasn’t really absolute silence.
Jane’s other input was more morbid. The silence of the tomb. We didn’t pursue that any further as I had no intention of forcing my way into some mausoleum in search of my answer, and yet that idea must have taken hold in my subconscious, because today I set off for Durham’s Oriental Museum confident that I would find my solution there, though I had no idea what form it would take.
This was my first visit to the museum, which in consideration of the preservation of its artefacts is cool and dimly lit, and being largely subterranean had a sepulchral resonance that suggested Jane might be on the right track. The light forced me into ISO settings on my camera that I wouldn’t dare consider in normal use and after taking the first shot or two another change came to mind. The ability to shoot more silently. The museum was virtually deserted and as I paused between shots I had near silence, only the soft hum of dehumidifiers rendering the adjective inadmissible.
There was plenty to photograph, though clearly some objects like this temple bell were clearly off topic!
A range of Chinese grave goods were more promising; objects that had endured centuries of silence before being removed for our education and their preservation. Yet these didn’t really do it for me; for one thing, the tiny bells clearly symbolised anything but silence, the cockerel on the funeral tile was far too garish, the terracotta horse too active. Only the tiny figurine showed promise, until you consider the history of these sculptures. They were substitutes for the human sacrifice that had preceded their introduction, a practice that must have been anything but silent.
Oriental Museum, Durham
Oriental Museum, Durham
Oriental Museum, Durham
Oriental Museum, Durham
Moving on from the associations of death I considered religious observance, inspired perhaps by MacCulloch. Would worship at this shrine have been conducted in silence? I can’t be sure, but of course when it comes to silent meditation there is one religion that springs to mind. Buddhism. Actually this might also be slightly misleading. The buddhist temple I visited
in Kathmandu was positively discordant with the sounds of trumpets, cymbals and conch shells, the sound of which apparently dispels evil spirits. Nevertheless the Buddha himself is indeed a peaceful figure.
It was however in the Egyptian rooms that I found my image. Lots more grave goods including a pair of intact sarcophagi. I might have missed it due to the attack on silence being conducted by a philistine loudly declaiming his expertise on Japanese seppuku. Loudly and inaccurately. I remained silent rather than correct his use of “hari-kari” to “hara-kiri” I found him so irritating that I was in a hurry to leave the room, but not before I found my goal. An object that being a sarcophagus mask had endured the centuries of silence, it’s face displaying a peace that could mirror the Buddha, and whose damage ensured the completeness of its silence.
Dropping my daughter at work this morning I stopped to check out the shoreline and was surprised to find two juxtaposed constructions.
The shamanistic origins of the carefully placed cairn of coloured stones were clear, but what was the significance of the structure nearby; an upturned shopping trolley with adjoining bread basket? Had the trolley been used as some sort of visual guide, placed in preparation for the forthcoming summer solstice. Would the sun arise between its wheels on the morning of June 20th?
Did the dark figure in the distance have some part to play? I zoomed in to see him running to sea with a portable altar under his arm.
At the water’s edge he paused to beckon the waves to hear his enchantments.
He then kissed dry land to ensure a safe return from his journey over the racing waters.
And then he seemed to break his back to give himself an excuse not to bother!
Joking aside, like any serious athlete, Mark was doing some stretching to reduce the risk of injury and as you can see he’s a pretty normal guy really.
Still doesn’t explain the shopping trolley though…