It was an unexpected intermission in the middle of performing various parts in a day long reproduction, on 1st July this year, of Trevor Wishart’s and Mick Banks’ contemporary musical installation, “Landscape.” First performed in 1970 in Hebden Bridge, the production concluded with the singing of the finale, in quartet through massive speakers, half way up a hillside, in the darkness of 10:45 pm, echoing across the amphitheater that is Hebden Bridge, in West Yorkshire, in the UK. It felt like the most haunting thing I’ve ever been a part of…except perhaps for one thing.
At some point in the afternoon on that day we had a chance to steal ourselves away up steep-sided hills above Hebden at a place, which rejoices in the very interesting but, as it turns out quite appropriate name of ‘Hellhole Rocks.’ For half an hour we sat in utter silence, shrouded by trees, with distant background echoes of life far away down in the town. To complete this scene, and designed to be a part of the ‘Landscape’ production, the only other sound we could hear, that left its footprint in the memory of this already memorable day, was a sound that stood out far above the background hum of life that acted as its accompaniment. It was the poignant ringing of a single church bell that tolled its message slowly but insistently for half an hour.
It brought back the feeling that descends on us every November 11th, at 11 o’clock, when we remember the fallen on Armistice Day with two minutes silence, commemorated throughout the Commonwealth of Nations and Allied Countries, since November 1919. This year’s Armistice Day commemoration will be the 100th.
This silence is always very moving, not only because of the powerful effects of the silence itself on our own personal reflections, thoughts and prayers, but also, and principally because it helps us all feel at one with so many people at exactly the same time. This is a hugely powerful force of humanitarian collaboration. It is this two minutes of silence, which commemorates the ending of that ‘War to end wars,’ the Great War of 1914-18, that I have observed most regularly. It starts with a bugler playing the Last Post, which is followed by a measured two minutes silence. The silence is broken by the bugler, who plays the Reveille. Between the Last Post and the silence, the exhortation is read; the fourth verse from Robert Laurence Binyon’s memorable poem, “For The Fallen”:
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them”
—Robert Laurence Binyon
These silent moments are a well established means of communal meditation; for remembering past lives, lost souls, healing the immediate effects of tragedies. Silent prayer, included during participation in other group activities, has been practiced by faith communities for centuries. These include, of course, Monasteries and Convents, but also it is reported that Quakers have done this for a few hundred years. I am certain there will be many and varied groups all over the World observing the same practice in their own way under their own faith system.
However, silent moments are also practiced in plural, multi-faith societies, which has the powerful effect of bringing people of different creeds together to think, pray, contemplate and grieve for lost souls. This is typified by the Armistice Day two minutes of silence, which spans the Commonwealth of Nations and Allied Countries, who celebrate it on 11th November. How gratifying it would be, as a result of such widespread humanitarian collaboration and cooperation, to have lasting peace in the World…
The Silent Minute
A very particular ‘Silent Minute’ was reportedly conceived and introduced into British life in 1940, early in the second world war, during the worst of the London Blitz that the Luftwaffe rained on us in 1940-41. It was the brain child of Major Wellesley Tudor Pole. As conceived, people were asked to observe one minute’s silence each evening at 9 pm, Greenwich Mean Time. Tudor Pole carried his idea to the King and to the Prime Minister, both of whose favor he won and so it was begun. Tudor Pole was quoted long after the war as saying:
“There is no power on earth that can withstand the united cooperation on spiritual levels of men and women of goodwill everywhere. It is for this reason that the continued and widespread observance of the Silent Minute is of such vital importance in the interest of human welfare.”
He was a man with some vision and a strong sense of the human spiritual effects of such cooperation and collaboration. He saw this Silent Minute as having been inspired from something beyond himself, from a Greater Power.
From 1941 through the end of the war, at 9 pm, when Big Ben rang the hour and the BBC broadcast its sound before its evening news report, people stopped to meditate, pray, or otherwise hope for an end to the war, victory, and peace.
BIG BEN SILENT-MINUTE OBSERVANCE.
HC Deb 09 April 1941 vol 370 cc1560-1
46. Sir W. Davison asked the Prime Minister whether he is now prepared to commend the Big Ben silent-minute observance to British citizens, so that, wherever possible, they should unite together in silent prayer for the speedy victory of our fight for freedom and justice?
The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Attlee) Yes, Sir. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would be glad to think that those of us who wish to join in silent prayer for victory are combining to use the opportunity with which the B.B.C. has provided them.
It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that several notable people—amongst whom were the woman credited as its reviver, Dorothy H Forster, and Edward Tudor Pole, Wellesley Tudor Pole’s grandson—became the first Trustees of a charity that named itself The Silent Minute or the ‘Big Ben Silent Minute’…back to that tolling bell again.
Later on in its life, Trustees included the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It now reaches out across all the continents of the world and, reportedly, there are more than 200 Million people who participate in the silence at 9pm each day, reciting this pithy little prayer:
“Source of my being
Help me to live in peace and
Save my home the planet Earth”
Read about a more recent U.S. revival as a response to Trump, in our other feature on the Silent minute.
—John Anstie ©2018
Sources and interesting links
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Minute
Wellesley Tudor Pole – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wellesley_Tudor_Pole
The Silent Minute charity – http://www.thesilentminute.org.uk/index.html
A recording of the Last Post – silence and Reveille is here: https://media.britishlegion.org.uk/Media/2843/2_minutes_silence.mp3
Wellesley Tudor-Pole biography : https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21388940-the-two-worlds-of-wellesley-tudor-pole