Swellboy on… silence

The incalculable value of peace and quiet

Image: Brijesh Patel

I am often asked what the greatest luxury is, and it’s a question that is, of course, almost impossible to answer. However, the more I study this topic the more one fact seems to emerge; the people who devote much of their lives to the Grail-like quest for the impossible ideal of perfect taste appear to place a high value on silence.

As with most of my theories about life, this is a soufflé (and may turn out to be a half-baked soufflé at that), but a pattern is beginning to emerge. In Cuba on one of my fact-finding visits, I seem to recall hearing that wooden cobbles were placed outside an important administrative building in the old town so that the occupant was not disturbed by the rattle of carriage wheels on stone. And, of course, invalids in affluent London neighbourhoods of the 19th century had their servants cover the streets with straw to achieve a similar effect.

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You know too how much I admired Mark Birley, and never tire of relating how he explained to me why he decided to commission a backgammon board from Hermès with a tapestry playing field – the reason being so that his overall atmosphere of calm and thoughtful repose would not be shattered by the cacophonous clatter of dice upon leather. I cannot recall whether he had the inside of the cups in which the dice were rolled muffled too.

I have recently learnt that the cult of silence was also an important part of sailing for two of the great demigods in the pantheon of the original jet set of the 1950s and 1960s. Apparently those who were invited aboard Stavros Niarchos’s yacht Creole were amazed at how quiet things were. Instead of crew and captain shouting to one another about weighing anchor and splicing the mainbrace, and swapping all manner of other nautical jargon, these instructions were conveyed by means of signals between crew members. The same was apparently true on Gianni Agnelli’s boat Agneta. I find it fascinating and revealing; I suspect that the true luxury lay not in the silence but in having the time to worry about such things.

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Anyway, I was also told that Agneta had red sails – not crimson or carmine, but more the brickish colour of the faded cotton canvas trousers known as Nantucket Reds – and sure enough pictures of this pencil-like boat show reddish sails. I daresay that L’Avvocato had discovered red canvas was in some way less likely to snap, crack or otherwise make a sound when filled with the wind – which gives credence to the oft-repeated Fitzgeraldism that the rich are different: for most of us silence is golden, but for the really well off silence is a shade that hovers between umber and cochineal.

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