Archives for posts with tag: Silence

It is 50 years since Sylvia Plath published her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, originally under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, in 1963. The book has never been out of print. The front cover has seen many guises, however, with the current one above, and that from my copy purchased a few years ago, below:

Irrespective of the cover, the content remains reassuringly the same. I have read it probably 5 times, not because it is a great novel, but because there has always been something essential about it for me.

If you have not read it, I truly recommend it. I am not about to summarise the plot or the background, but I will draw your attention to the title, a bell jar signifying entrapment, being kept within, imprisoned:

‘To the person in a bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.’

Thus reflects Esther, the main protagonist in the novel, as she leaves the asylum in the last chapter, and realises that forgetting is not an option: memories are a part of her, ‘my landscape.’

When Esther first arrives at ‘Doctor Gordon’s private hospital’:

‘What bothered me was that everything about the house seemed normal, although I knew it must be chock-full of crazy people. There were no bars on the windows that I could see, and no wild or disquieting noises.’

There was no going back after Esther’s experiences, from what she had witnessed and lived through. She could not, as her mother wished, dismiss it all as a bad dream.

This is not a book whose passages you memorise, but there are some that resonate and stick:

‘The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.’


This film was highly rated at the 2012 London Film Festival. I saw it yesterday, in a relatively packed auditorium for a Saturday midday screening.
I was hugely impressed. This is great, and essential, cinema. Shocking? Yes. Distressing? Yes. But some truths need to be told, and told again, and again, until they get the attention they deserve. Tragically, atrocities within the Catholic Church just don’t go away.
Mainly focusing on sex scandals within the Catholic Church in America, much of the film deals with the sexual abuse of deaf boys by Fr. Murphy in a school for deaf children in Wisconsin. Years later, the adult victims began a campaign to have Fr. Murphy removed from the priesthood. While this did not happen, the campaign achieved much to bring the issue of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church into the open. The campaign continues to gain strength.
The reason why priests who abuse children remain not only active as priests, but continue to have open access to children, is beyond comprehension, yet it appears to be how the Catholic Church deals with such heinous crimes (at worst the ‘offenders’ are deemed ‘sinners’, never criminals). The hierarchy within the establishment mostly responds to allegations of sex abuse against its priests with silence. A sad irony indeed, as we learn in Mea Maxima Culpa of the abuse of children who were already vocally silenced and isolated by their deafness.
The intricacies and complexities of the conspiracy within the Catholic Church at the highest level to publicly ignore the suffering of the abused is astounding. As is the money – billions – ┬áthe institution pays out annually via ‘fixers’ to ‘settle’ sex scandal cases.
There is an on ongoing movement, led by the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robinson, to remove the Vatican’s right to exist as an independent state (granted by Mussolini…the Vatican’s position in the war is surely the stuff of another film…), a status that currently gives it diplomatic immunity and puts the Pope outside the jurisdiction of the law. It is truly absurd, and wrong, that such a situation exists. It is also absurd, and personally shocking, to see clips of various Heads of State paying homage to the Pope during their special audience…
Nonetheless, I do have a sense of the Vatican imploding. I hope that I am not being overly optimistic…


I originally read this memoir (London: Harper Perennial, 2003) a few years ago, and re-read it last week having watched snippets of the recent BBC4 dramatisation (I did not particularly like the bits of the TV adaptation that I saw, mainly as my memory of the book was quite different, a memory I wanted to hang on to).

I loved the book when I first read it, and enjoyed it even more the second time round.

The format is seductive. Almost all chapters have a food heading, for example ‘Lemon Drops’, ‘Sherbet Fountain, ‘Bread-and-Butter Pudding, ‘Fried Eggs’. But one soon realises that the subtext is not that of the comforting aspect of food. Rather, the narrative focuses on childhood memories, which are indeed food-related, but are not particularly happy rememberings, often the opposite, and are rarely suffused with a Proustian-like nostalgia.

Slater’s childhood, or how he chooses to delineate it in this memoir, was one punctuated by food and by mealtimes, over which clouds of silence, secrets, loneliness, and confusion hover in an adult world.

At the outset we are introduced to the author’s mother, and she features prominently in the first half of the book. In the chapter ‘Toast’, Slater speaks fondly of her:

‘It’s impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you.’ (p.1)

We share Slater’s sense of exclusion, and his increasing unease as he senses that something is not right in their world:

‘Nobody tells me anything. They talk in whispers over my head…’ (p.45).

The foreboding persists, and culminates in the premature death of his mother. I was surprised how little we learn of how this affected Slater emotionally, but then this is a book where feelings are not expressed directly, but circuitously. One does get some sense of his distress, albeit obliquely:

‘When your mum dies you notice little things more, like your senses are all cranked up a notch’ (p.114)

In the second half of the book, Slater’s relationship with his father, which was never straightforward, comes to the fore:

‘For all his soft shirts and cuddles and trifles I was absolutely terrified of him.’

Much centres on mealtime battles, on food, and time spent (unhappily) at the table:

‘Every time my dad feeds me he goes quiet, thoughtful, distant even.’ (p.89)

When his father loses the battle over porridge, Slater comments:

‘My father’s disappointment in his youngest son is so obvious you could put it on a plate and eat it.’ (p.89)

The tension created by silence, by the unsaid, is almost palpably sad. Since ‘my mother had gone’:

‘Every meal was seasoned with guilt. His. Mine.’ (p.110)

Slater’s mother is replaced by Joan, who speaks about him in the third person in his presence, and expresses herself almost exclusively through homemaking, cleaning, baking and cooking. A domestic goddess of sorts, who Slater never warmed to, or even really appeared to like, he admits to admiring her lemon meringue pie:

‘Joan’s lemon meringue pie was one of the most glorious things I had ever put in my mouth…’ (p.154)

and also acknowledges another Joan, hidden behind the making and the baking:

‘She is aware, I know, that none of my dad’s friends like her. It suddenly occurs to me that she is probably as lonely as I am.’ (p.185)

For the relationship between father and son, communication takes place through food, occasionally exhibiting a kindness that cannot be otherwise expressed. When Slater’s mother dies, for example, his father places two marshmallows on his bedside table. This nightly routine continued for two years.

On the other hand, he also tried to control who his son was, or might be, through food:

‘He always winced when I asked for fairy drops. ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have some Brazil nut toffees?’ he said, trying desperately to make a man of me.’ (p.117)

I have thought much about this book, both when I first read it, and since my re-read. Food is so central to our lives, essential, yet also used as a tool, to hide behind, to disguise what can otherwise be too painful to express. The physicality of food concretises emotions, and has the potential to further confuse issues:

‘Without a word he stabs his fork into a slice of ham and slaps it on my plate. A hot wave of hate goes through my body. Hate ham, hate him.’ (p.33)

It seems as if the power of food goes beyond what it is. Perhaps it is a useful tool, at times. Not all can be expressed with words, and we do need other vehicles to channel our feelings and to facilitate how we connect. Yet we also abuse it, and give it a status that can distract us from the real business of who we are and what we truly need.

Slater’s childhood experiences clearly have not destroyed his relationship with food. His current TV series testifies to someone who truly loves food, and who also treats it kindly.


One of 14 Irish films at the festival, Pat Collins’ piece is mesmerising, and also very difficult to classify. Primarily a documentarist, Collins’ latest film does not fit into the documentary genre. But it also lies beyond the world of fiction, with little in the way of plot, or ‘traditional’ narrative.

The film follows Eoghan, resident in Berlin but originally from a small island, Tory, of northwestern Ireland. Eoghan is seeking silence, and we join him on his quest to capture an experience that excludes man-made or man-related sounds. Inevitably, the endeavour fails, or is perhaps re-directed, as Eoghan moves closer to Tory, which he last visited 15 years previously. In the end, he re-visits the derelict home of his growing up, which is poignantly empty of sound.

As Collins said in the Q&A after the screening, the film is more about sound than about silence. As his journey progresses, Eoghan engages more with others, speaking in his native Irish, and all the time, subconsciously or otherwise, edging closer to ‘home’.

It is tempting, and fraught, to speculate on the meaning behind Silence, and to analyse what it may be trying to achieve. I loved this film. During the screening, and since, I have considered both the concept of home (Brian Dillon’s book In the Dark Room: A Journey in Memory came to mind) and its impossibility, a nowhere and an everywhere, and that of silence. Silence means many things, beyond an absence of sound, which can be welcome, but also deeply threatening, and a profound signifier of loss.