I wrote this for the Guardian a few years ago:
On 11 November 1937, an ex-serviceman, Stanley Storey, interrupted the two minutes’ silence at the Cenotaph. Breaking through the crowd and running into the road, he screamed “All this hypocrisy!” and something else that sounded like “Preparing for war!” Half a dozen policemen gave chase and, just yards from the Prime Minister, clambered on top of him and muffled his cries.
It turned out that Storey was an escapee from a mental asylum. But his shattering of the two minutes’ silence struck a chord. The Daily Mirror argued that the silence was now “a silence of shared impotence … what is the use of paying homage when every day we drift nearer and nearer to another war?” According to a 1938 Mass-Observation survey, 43 per cent of people were against continuing the tradition of the silence.
Nearly seventy years later, however, the silence remains unbroken. The British Legion, which has long campaigned for its observance on Armistice Day proper as well as Remembrance Sunday, is organising a big event this Saturday on the same scale as the Cenotaph service: an hour-long ceremony in Trafalgar Square which will culminate in the two minutes’ silence, followed by an RAF flypast, the Last Post and the scattering of poppies in the fountains.
The ebbing and flowing of observation of the silence has always mirrored political anxieties. In 1919, with much of Europe in revolutionary turmoil, it seemed like a good idea to have a secular ritual that could unite the people without demanding too much of them. “Capital and Labour were as one for two minutes,” the Times wrote approvingly of what was then called the Great Silence, “and the eloquence of the agitator was stayed by an impelling force.” The government moved the silence to Remembrance Sunday after World War II because it felt that commemorating the exact time of the 1918 Armistice was disrespectful to the dead of the more recent war. The revival of the silence on Armistice Day dates from 1996, following a two-year-long, rather bullying crusade by the tabloids to get the BBC and high street stores to observe it. The crusade began as a backlash against John Major’s ill-advised plans to “celebrate” the anniversary of the D-Day landings with spam-fritter frying competitions.
But the two minutes’ silence is more than simply a vehicle for the righteous anger of tabloid editors – partly because it hauntingly confirms John Cage’s observation that “there is no such thing as silence”. Jonty Semper’s CD, Kenotaphion, collects together recordings of the silences held at the Cenotaph since 1929. In each case the chimes of Big Ben are followed not by silence but by ambient noise: birdsong, distant traffic, shuffling feet, babies crying, the rustling of leaves. This is why the BBC lobbied hard in the 1920s to broadcast the silence from the Cenotaph. It knew that simply shutting down the airwaves for two minutes would not have the same impact as this resonant near-silence. The silence was a paradoxical by-product of mass society: a temporary stilling of the chaos of urban life which required all the accoutrements of modernity, like radio time signals and newspaper propaganda campaigns, to make it work.
Collective silence is now the default option to commemorate events of very different import, from the Indonesian Tsunami to the death of ex-footballers. No one is sure what these silences are for. So we have arguments about “silence inflation” - whether to raise the bar to three minutes for large-scale disasters – or wonder if it is more appropriate to clap than stand there silently. We seem to want silence to carry a freight of meaning that it can never bear, and to prescribe what effect it should have in a way that is likely to lessen its impact. The two minutes’ silence on Armistice Day, initially intended as a one-off, became a national tradition precisely because its meanings were so unstable and various. As one journalist wrote in 1919, it was an opportunity to unite in “thanksgiving, rejoicing, pity, life-long pride and grief”. The silence works by maintaining a delicate balance between public coercion and private reflection. All it requires of us is that we are silent.