An Awkward Silence

It started on the morning of Armistice Day. Amid the distributed hubbub of Twitter, a few people began to voice surprise at a series of messages posted from the official account of the Public Order Branch of London’s Metropolitan Police:

There is a policing operation in place to preserve the dignity of the 2 minute silence #Armistice Day #remember
11/11/2011 09:37 

Though no textbook example of public relations nous, that first intervention seemed innocuous enough. It took a few more dispatches before the response rose to incredulity, though on reflection the hashtagged injunction to ‘#remember’ should have been fair warning. As it popped up on two more tweets, some started to wonder out loud whether it was really the job of the Met to compel the forgetful fringes of the nation. Did ‘dignity’ now fall within the jurisdiction of Scotland Yard?  

A few minutes later, a second message:

Individuals seeking to disrupt the 2 minute silence will be dealt with robustly #Armistice Day #remember
11/11/2011 09:40 

Before long, that warning had been retweeted to thousands of people, many of whom found it at best uncomfortable and at worst rather menacing. First there was the insinuating officialese of ‘individuals’. We are part of the congregation, it seemed to say. Anyone else is a rabble. Then the vaguely threatening ‘dealt with’. After a summer of protests and riots, at a time when public confidence in the police — especially among young people — had been eroded to a scrap, the tone was all wrong. While the threat of forcible eviction hung over the Occupy camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral, the Met was signalling its default position as combative, authoritarian. The phrasing stank robustly, lingeringly sour at the back of the throat, like day-old pepper spray.

The strange frenzy of Armistice Day seemed to reach a new pitch this year. Whether because of recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, or more likely because of the sharp cuts being made to the UK defence budget, a belligerent note began to sound more intensely from Whitehall to Fleet Street. Politicians who had voted for unjust wars competed to be photographed wearing the biggest poppy. Those who forgot or chose not to wear one were vilified. After intervention by high-profile public figures, including the Duke of Cambridge, FIFA modified its standing ban on political symbols — which the poppy certainly is — to allow British football teams to wear it during their international matches. The Met’s tweeting was in line with that new truculence. It was aimed, they said, at discouraging protests like those held in 2010, when two people were convicted of public order offences. But it couldn’t help affecting, too, the tone of the silence. Yes, silence has a tone; and this year in particular brought with it the sense of a ritual already appropriated. Something about a compulsory silence is troubling to begin with; but when we have to start speaking of a policed compulsory silence, we should be aware that some deeply suspect assumptions have begun to reshape our etiolated public discourse.


When media pundits are called upon to describe the history of the Armistice silence, they invariably mention Edward George Honey. Honey was an Australian journalist who had been a soldier in France. Discharged on medical grounds, he survived the war, and stayed on in London. In May 1919, he sent a letter to the Evening News. Honey had watched the previous November as England rejoiced. There had been dancing and drinking. There had been couples in doorways and crowds cheering in the streets. For Honey, more sensitive to tone than the tweeters of the Met, that revelry seemed unbefitting a nation of victors. A reflective silence seemed to him a far more appropriate and dignified response:

Five little minutes only. Five silent minutes of national remembrance. A very sacred intercession. Communion with the Glorious Dead who won us peace, and from the communion new strength, hope and faith in the morrow. Church services, too, if you will, but in the street, the home, the theatre, anywhere, indeed, where Englishmen and their women chance to be, surely in this five minutes of bitter-sweet silence there will be service enough.

With its talk of the Glorious Dead, of ‘Englishmen and their women’, Honey’s proposal speaks in the voice of a particular time, and of particular prejudices that war had done little to revise. But it does have the advantage of recognising that the moment of silent contemplation points forwards — ‘hope and faith in the morrow’ — as well as back into the shared history of an imagined community. What Honey had forgotten (and what gets left out of the versions of the story that begin with him) was that there had been silence on 11th November 1918. Millions of people had stood waiting for the signal that would mark the return of peace. They were waiting to hear church bells ring for the first time in four years. Theirs was a silence of anticipation, even if, for a moment, they found their thoughts returning to what had been lost.

One of the best accounts of that silence comes at the beginning of A Man Could Stand Up—, the third volume of Ford Madox Ford’s Great War novel cycle, Parade’s End. As the novel opens, we realise that Valentine Wannop has missed the Armistice signal because of a spectacularly ill-timed telephone call:

She didn’t even know whether what they had let off had been maroons or aircraft guns or sirens. It had happened — the noise, whatever it was — whilst she had been coming through the underground passage from the playground to the schoolroom to answer this wicked telephone. So she had not heard the sound. She had missed the sound for which the ears of a world had waited for years, for a generation. For an eternity. No sound. When she had left the playground there had been dead silence. All waiting: girls rubbing one ankle with the other rubber sole…

Taking the call, Valentine finds it almost impossible to hear the voice on the other end through the noise: ‘a sea of shrill girls’ voices from the playground’, ‘an ocean of factory-hooters’ ululations’, and ‘innumerable explosions that trod upon one another’s heels.’ Silence, in the soundscape of Ford’s Armistice novel, is what comes after war and before peace, a ‘dead silence’ that grasps that heavy word lightly between expressions of hope in futurity. It is the hushed moment of disbelief when the sound of guns gives way to relief, to revelry. The change was too abrupt for some. But the boisterous soldiers who invade Christopher Tietjens’s flat at the end of the novel — his old subalterns now turning the place upside down in a spirit of carnival — bring with them an inchoate desire that things might be different. These are the squaddies whose rowdiness so annoyed Edward Honey. True, though Ford lets them into Tietjens’s place, he doesn’t exactly approve of their lack of decorum when they get there. But allowances can be made for the awkward moment. It is, after all, the end of four years of killing: ‘By Jove the war’s over… The lion lying down with the lamb’s nothing…’


As I write, a friend e-mails to share a story from last weekend. ‘I was in Queen’s Park farmer’s market on Sunday,’ he says, ‘when they rang a bell, unannounced’: 

About two-thirds of the people stopped (froze actually, as well as stopped talking), realising what it was for, but many didn’t. There followed the bizarre spectacle of a Spanish mother conducting a one-sided conversation with a Gloucester cheese seller, getting increasingly angry as he blushed, torn between the twin obligations of deference to the tradition (which seems to be more pronounced than ever) and politeness to strangers.

Who wouldn’t have sympathy with that predicament? I don’t envy the man on the market stall. But I do think that, like the clamour of Ford’s novel set against Honey’s desire for hushed reflection, such moments of confrontation can remind us that the fit between silence and remembrance is not neat. Remembering is slow and painful and incomplete, filled with its own discomfort, its own contrariness. How awkward it is, how uneasy, this standing silent with so many others of whom we know so little. And how much more than awkward to remember that a hundred years ago, at a time of unprecedented prosperity, two great world powers sent men to kill each other in their millions.

In those different sorts of awkwardness might lie an alternative to official compulsion. We might, for instance, begin to accept awkwardness as an appropriate response to the difficulty of remembering those to whom so much is owed, and to whom no expression of thanks can ever have sounded quite right. There is nothing inherently dignified about silence, of course, but a silence may be no less dignified for being awkward. Anyone who has sat in the audience for King Lear can tell you that. It may still be possible for us to think our way to a form of silent remembrance in which the dignity of the moment is guaranteed not by cancelling opposition, but by acknowledging the unease it should produce in us and in the wider body politic. Such awkwardness, the ambient sound of dissent, would resonate not only with the muffled history of state violence, but also with the necessary discord of protest. And we should make no mistake: it is the possibility of protest, rather than the threat of enforcement, that legitimates silence as the expression of our communal remembrance.