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Paul Vallely: Listen to silence — especially in old age    

24 November 2023

Paul Vallely ponders the significance of language that is unspoken

© BBC Film/Entertainment Pictures/ZUMAPRESS.com

The late Glenda Jackson plays Rene Jordan in The Great Escaper

The late Glenda Jackson plays Rene Jordan in The Great Escaper

WHEN do we need words, and when is silence more eloquent? I have been thinking this week about how best we manifest love.

Words are at the heart of a new play, To Have and To Hold, by Richard Bean, who wrote the worldwide theatrical hit One Man, Two Guvnors. To Have and To Hold is a farce about a couple in their nineties, who have invited their middle-aged children home to sign power-of-attorney forms, now that the old folk can no longer drive into town to do their shopping, and lack mobile phone or internet to connect them to the modern world.

The wife, Flo, is going blind and becoming forgetful. The husband, Jack, is an irascible retired Yorkshire policeman, who tells us constantly that he is only waiting to die. The play centres on the unending bickering of the old couple. Jack, portrayed with devastating hilarity by Alun Armstrong, fights off despair with relentless jibes against his wife, which, it is eventually revealed in a moment of great pathos, are the caustic cover for a love that has sustained them through 70 years of marriage.

In contrast, silences dominate another moving portrait of old age currently in our cinemas. In The Great Escaper, the late Glenda Jackson, in her final film, plays another sarcastic nonagenarian — but, in this case, the wit is sardonic rather than scathing. She plays Rene, the mischievous wife of Bernard Jordan, the 89-year-old Second World War veteran who, in 2014, sneaked out of their care home to board a cross-Channel ferry to attend the 70th-anniversary commemoration of the D-day landings.

The film could have been a jaunty sentimental tabloid romp. But the director, Oliver Parker, has transfigured it into a tender study of elderly love. This is in large part due to the wonderful performances of Jackson and Michael Caine, who plays her husband. Parker allows his camera to linger on the faces of the old couple, wordlessly. His unblinking focus on the face of the old soldier, as he scans the seas and beaches of Normandy, creates a canvas on which we see a tale of love, loss, trauma, and guilt, in which silence is a most expressive interlocutor.

The most powerful language can be that which is unspoken. At one level, this is because, as the Venerable Fulton Sheen put it, “those who do not yet love one another deeply have need of words; those who deeply love thrive on silences.” But it is also, as Diarmaid MacCulloch noted in Silence: A Christian history, because silence does not signify mere absence. Every silence is different and distinctive. Silence needs to be listened to.

Professor MacCulloch has great fun, quoting the New Testament scholar John Fenton’s remark: “The most obvious characteristic of God is his silence. He does not cough or mutter or shuffle his feet to reassure us that he is there”; and W. H. Vanstone’s observation that the Church “is like a swimming pool in which all the noise comes from the shallow end”.

But his serious theme is that silence has a parallel in the apophatic theology that sets out what God is not rather than what he is. Perhaps our thinking about old age might benefit from a similar approach.

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