BBC4’s Christmas Eve schedule seemed to catch this mood. For an outrageous two hours, we watched a pair of Sami women leading their reindeer through the frozen tundra of the Norwegian Arctic Circle. Almost nothing happened, mesmerically. Instead of watching the traffic ahead of you, or your own life going nowhere, two women with red shawls and deerskin coats led their sleighs into something approaching another century. A twilit landscape marked only by snow, trees and their own tracks. It struck me that we are so used to the bombardment of images and sound that their withdrawal is problematic. We don’t know what to do, where to put ourselves, where to go.
Watch an old prewar black and white film, and you’ll realise that there is no soundtrack beyond human voices. The silence between the dialogue is almost anarchic to a contemporary audience that expects every possible permutation of emotion to be underscored and overblown. What you focus on instead is the story and the acting. Other works, such as Samuel Beckett’s plays or Virginia Woolf’s writing, leave those same spaces of stripped-down awareness, reflected in Woolf’s case by the writer herself. “One was compelled to listen even when she only called for more milk,” wrote a friend after spending an evening with the author. “It was strangely like being in a novel.”
To engage with great art demands the greatest expense from us: time. The greatest writer can even manage without words. The Shakespearean critic Anne Barton noted that so terse and pared down is the writing of The Tempest that it could be almost entirely played in mime, and the audience could still understand exactly.
A modern novel by the Berlin writer Sten Nadolny catches this spirit too. Ostensibly a fictionalised biography of the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, it bears the wonderful title The Discovery of Slowness – a tribute to a man who, Nadolny fantasises, did everything with deliberation. I read it last January, holed up in a beachside house in Cape Cod, where the wind rocked the timbers and the freezing sea actually flowed under the building itself. It was tempting, in that brutal Atlantic sparseness, to seek the discovery of slowness. The very prose Nadolny uses slows the reader down – to the extent that I lost patience after the first chapter and threw the book across the room. But then I picked it back up and realised how brilliant it was. It physically forced me to consider the actions of its protagonist – and to think not only about what I was reading, but how and why I read.
Maybe that’s why we need these empty days. Days that don’t even have a name. (I am deliberately avoiding the fact that someone recently coined the term “Twixtmas”). Unspoken for, they allow us to refill our lives with the important things. Talking, walking, thinking. Perhaps to challenge ourselves. On Christmas Eve I woke before dawn to swim in the sea. The waves were lashing the sea wall, great white luminous fingers reaching up to the sky. I was the only one on the beach – save for a woman runner who dashed past in a blur of neon Lycra, shouting her approval of my naked madness: “Fantastic!”
Most important of all, perhaps, is to listen to those spaces in between. In the darkness illuminated by a misty full moon this morning, within sight of the sodium-lit port near where I live, I heard two tawny owls conversing overhead. I had no idea what they were saying; it was enough that for a few moments, I was there to bear witness to them, along with the other spirits that populate the world while we sleep: the rabbits and foxes and, in a black car, lone stragglers from a nightclub, contained in their own world of a booming but muffled sound system.
Earlier this year, I stood on another beach, at night, with the sound artist and wildlife recordist Chris Watson, as the waves of the English Channel broke fearfully over the rocks in the darkness. To me it was just one cacophonous roar. But his acutely attuned ears heard something quite different. “Can you hear that boom? It’s caused by an underwater hollow,” he said. Suddenly, the sea sounded entirely different. I could hear its space, its submarine geography. It was a sound as mysterious as those tawny owls. An emptiness, filled with noise.