by Anya Hancock
My blank slate has been a year in the making. It began the moment I arrived home to an empty house, plunged into silence. Earlier that day, I packed up the last two and a half years of my life in London into the back of a rental van and drove home. A Sunset Van to Birmingham doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as a Midnight Train to Georgia, but like Gladys Knight’s mystery man, the pull of a life with fewer complications is, I think, universal.
Silence is in short supply in London and not always welcome. A quiet street or empty carriage doesn’t necessarily free the mind but sends it spiralling with anxieties and a sense of unease. As I cleared an eerily quiet Battersea Bridge, the cacophony of my life in London also began to ebb away. The clamour of precarious employment contracts, rental agreements and more recently, pandemic fears, was a constant, like the hum of an appliance you can’t switch off but try to ignore, even though it keeps you awake at night. What would I do without all this noise?
As a musician, I probably think about sound more than most. From basslines to birdsong, my ears are attuned to the subtlest texture and the slightest dissonance. There’s no off-switch. What happens in the concert hall definitely doesn’t stay there; it loops around other sounds, picking up sonic debris like a cyclone until the noise of my neighbour’s footsteps is as fixating as a piece by Philip Glass.
In the absence of sound, a place can lose its identity. In London, I lived a short walk from the New Cross Rd, a choking thoroughfare for traffic in a tube-free stretch of the city, and beneath several flight paths. Towards the end of my time there, with flights grounded and the rush hour traffic stuck at home, this part of London could have been almost anywhere else in the UK.
“What would I do without all this noise?”
Similarly, the silence of my grandmother’s house unnerved me. Nan was safe – staying with my parents ahead of the first lockdown – and although I’d lived away from home for years, now that I was back, I felt the sting of their absence acutely. Nan’s house still looked the same, but without her shuffling to the kitchen, singing to the radio and shouting at her soaps, it seemed strange and uncanny, like the life had been pulled from it. I slept with a light on.
For the first few weeks, I tried to replace the silence of the house with my own noise. I played through every piece of sheet music I could find; called home two or three times a day, and binge-watched series long into the night, but these were temporary distractions. The silence was still there when I went to bed. So, I turned to face it head-on, without interruptions. I woke up earlier, and instead of doom-scrolling through headlines of warnings and what-ifs, I made coffee and threw open the windows. Gradually, I started to enjoy the quiet stillness of the morning, when the day ahead laid out long and hopeful, and waking up in a good mood wasn’t interrupted by an overcrowded commute to eight hours of UV-lit vitamin deficiency.
In 1905 the activist Julia Rice set up the New York City Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise. Rice believed there was a link between excessive noise levels in urban environments – what we’d now call noise pollution – and ill health. I discovered this about two weeks after I arrived home, in a spate of procrastinating rabbit-hole reading that was impressive, even by my standards. Was it fate, or internet cookies that led me to this bizarre sonic symbiosis? At any rate, my restless ear turned inwards.
My ears, which had held their nerve in live broadcasts and kept their focus in the depths of an opera pit had tuned out from myself. For a long time, I’d ignored the difference between desire and obligation; ‘want’ and ‘ought’. I replaced doubts with the sound of distraction; today was never enough because tomorrow could always be better. The silence of the house was quietly edging open a kind of Pandora’s Box, where the impracticalities of my old life came sharply into focus. If I was at a crossroads when I returned home in the spring, then by the end of summer, silence had paved a new path towards perspective.
My blank slate is still a work-in-progress. Some days I long for the shock of the new and the embrace of the familiar; the buzz of a pub with friends, the spray of sea foam against my skin, and the inimitable thrill of playing live music, with and for others. Yet I am grateful for this time, while it lasts. My imagination has thawed out and blossomed into life in the journals stacked on my desk. I have retraced old steps and discovered new places in familiar spaces. The ability to look and listen to the world anew is a joy I hope to hold on to. During these moments of quiet reflection, I am thankful to be surrounded once more by the ‘noise’ of those I’d missed the most. Communication is good, but silence is golden.
Anya Hancock | @hancoany
A cultural heritage professional by day, Anya enjoys writing and music, with a particular interest in folklore, Italy, and her dog. She’s featured in the Guardian, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and performed on BBC Radio 3.