The shushing spokesman

Ian McMillan - 15 November 2010

Despite the fact that I'm having an Autumn thinking about sound and noise for these blogs, I seem to have become something of a shushing spokesman for silence lately. Its all due to my appearance on Radio 4’'s Desert Island Discs where I chose John Cage's fantastic 4'33'' piece as my eighth record. What I like about it is that it makes you listen hard: of course there is never silence anywhere at any time and as you stand or sit and open your ears, then all kinds of sounds filter through the blankness. Radio stations and journalists have rung me up to talk about it, and of course by talking about it I break the silence, which is the kind of conundrum I like.

It's funny how computers can redraft your poems for you, too. In my last post (odd phrase, that) I wrote part of the first draft of a piece called Friday Sounds, Wombwell, and the word scutch got rewritten as scotch, which gave the line an extra dimension. The word scutch is an old Yorkshire word for a smack, although actually it's one of those words that is more or less untranslateable. A scutch is more of a playful slap, a slap with a smile on its face, if there can be such a thing. The computer-driven redraft wasn't anybody's fault, but it shows how a vowel can alter meaning as well as sound as well as shifting and reducing cultural resonances.
So I'm still working on that poem that I previewed last time, although I've expanded the title a little. It was called 'Friday Sounds, Wombwell' but now it's called 'Friday Sounds, Wombwell and Elsewhere' in an attempt to give an idea of the places I've been travelling to since I started doing these postings.
I know that the machines here at the Archive can't reproduce lines of poetry but here's the poem as it stands now, with a little bit of commentary...

Iron age hillfort sock stall/slap of wind from somewhere/ old somewhere where the sound//of money hand to hand, sound/ of the wind’s scutch, of the mouth’s harsh/reyt nivver sithee sock stall//rings down this hillfort high street/this stopped clock, dropped/watch in the loud sunlight, the silent clouds//

What I’m trying to do there (and of course it’s not right yet) is to conflate time, so that Iron Age time happens in the same space as the present. I’m imagining the language around the sock stall in Wombwell Market near Barnsley, the harsh Yorkshire words penetrating the street’s din: the reyt, nivver, sithee hopefully echoing down the years to a way they might have spoken in the Iron Age. And then towards the end of what we’ve got there I’m trying to say something else about time and sound and noise.



How do you know when it's over? The 4'33" of silence, I mean - especially on a desert island with no one to ask you your next record? Here the birds are singing and my computer is humming, but not the same tune.

Your stomach appeared to have different views, although at the time when I was listening I had just completed a journey, parked the car and turned the engine off (perfect timing) for what is the closest you can get to silence whilst on a car journey. I was so disappointed because at that moment when I really listened to the snippet of 4'33'' by John Cage, my stomach started to rumble or so I thought, it made me chuckle to hear that it was yours and not mine.

I have not listened to 'Desert Island Discs' but I have heard of it. Just curious, what was your choice of book and luxury item?

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