SA M N E I L L
After all the clamour, there’s nothing to beat the sound of silence
I have recently had a new grandson. I say this almost as if it were a personal achievement, but grandchildren in truth are thrust upon you whether you like it or not. He seems a perfectly agreeable sort of chap, as babies go. He’s a quiet baby, and quietness is highly regarded in people that small. And in fact I admire it wherever I find it. I’m honest enough to tell you that, in my view, babies are overrated. This boy’s grandmothers are in a complete lather over him, and are quite incapable of keeping their hands off the little tyke. I’m not big on baby cuddling as it happens. I’m perfectly willing to give him a pat en passant, but that’s about as far as it goes. They’re just not my thing, other people’s bubbas. One’s own babies are of course another thing altogether. I suspect they are born with some innate hypnotic superpower that renders the new parent robotically helpless. When your newborn first gazes coolly upon you from its comfy cradle thing, if you listen very carefully, you might hear a tiny voice at the back of your brain. The baby is saying, in a cute but steely way — ‘I am going to count from one to ten. When I get to ten, you will see me as the Most Beautiful Being in the Universe. And you will feed me, clean me, house me and lavish me with tender ministrations 24/7 for years and years, until such time as I am sick to death of you and decide to leave home.’ Silently you reply, telepathically — ‘Yes, oh Divine One, we hear and obey.’ My youngest daughter — mother of this new boy — is a case in point. She is now the most beautiful of women: elegant and serene. But as a baby, my God she was
plain. Delightful, but . . . looking at photo albums twenty-something years on — what were we thinking, intoxicated as we were by her seeming heavenly countenance? In fact she looked rather like those joke Buddhas you can find at dodgy markets, the laughing ones whose belly you rub for good luck. Anyway, this boy seems to be universally thought of as winsome. I have no idea about that, but I do like his general quietness. We sit and look at each other in companionable silence; he sucks on his pacifier and I on my 2008 Pinot. I like to be quiet too. This is often regarded with suspicion by the more garrulous of those under my roof. They ask me: ‘What’s the matter? You’re so quiet.’ ‘Nothing,’ I reply helpfully. ‘No, what’s wrong?’ they persist, ‘are you in a bad mood?’ ‘No,’ I snarl, ‘but I bloody well will be if you carry on with this.’ It’s funny how a mildly irritating question can turn you into a deeply unpleasant person just like that. The quietest person I think I ever met was Charles Upham, the only man to earn a double Victoria Cross in the second world war. He would sometimes come over to my girlfriend’s farm for lunch on Sundays. Her father, Dick Ormond, was a prisoner of war in Colditz with Charlie; another very quiet man and perhaps Upham’s closest friend. I was impressed by how they never felt the slightest compulsion to talk at all, even to each other. Their fearsomely chatty wives filled all the gaps. It’s worth looking at Wikipedia to get a snapshot of Upham’s astonishing war, and you can understand a little why a quiet farming life would subsequently appeal. I have been offered various 44
roles over the years in films about Charlie that invariably foundered. The thing is, if you filmed it as it really happened, no one would believe it. Like most of his generation, he never mentioned the war, but he never forgot it either. He had an abiding dislike for anything German. Charlie had three intoxicatingly gorgeous daughters who were much pursued by young hooray farming types in moleskins and Viyella shirts. These young men for some reason almost always drove Volkswagen Beetles. The sight of the badge on the front of their cars would move Charlie to great anger, and they would be immediately ordered off the property, much to the fury of the beautiful daughters. His friend Dick would give me work in the holidays on the land. Like many farmers who had been to war, he had a thousand-yard stare; he’d lean quietly on a gate, sigh and make a contented noise like a frog, ‘Yup’, and that’d be as much as you’d get out of him for an hour or so. He was a lovely, gentle and quiet man. Quietness is an increasingly difficult thing to find these days. It’s very quiet here on the vineyard, however, and on a still night there is often no sound at all. That’s when I realise that those years of Crazy Horse, Springsteen and so on have left me with all kinds of interesting tinnitis whines and whistles. For a while I could have sworn there was a truck continually grinding up the mountain opposite, changing gears all the while. Not so. No matter — this week we picked the last of our grapes, a beautiful vintage, and I found myself leaning on a wall making a small contented sound as well. Quietly.
Portrait: David Sparshott