By Nadia Kingsley
Sunday 17 April 2016 06.00 BST
I GUESS everyone knows about the Learning to Listen project by now. But who, I wondered, knows anything about the person behind the project: Nadia Kingsley? So this intrepid journalist headed out on a mid April morning to meet the woman herself.
All looks fairly normal as I park up outside her home. A cock pheasant runs across my path as I walk to the front door and I wonder for a moment if that had been pre-arranged. It is certainly tranquil here. I don’t think I have ever heard so much birdsong – there must be an aviary round the back and I dictate a note to self to ask about this in the interview.
Despite it being a mild spring day I am greeted by a middle-aged woman in a thick winter jumper. There are logs burning in the grate. “We don’t have hot water” she says, “Would you like a glass of cold?” I decline. And notice a kind of ringing in my ear, but otherwise not much else.
Her downstairs seems to have been turned into one huge office – piles of papers, books, several tables all laden down with computers, printers, all the equipment you’d expect. But none of it is on.
“We had notice that our electricity would be off today” Nadia says, “I thought it an ideal time for us to meet.”
“Of course. So I can get an inkling of how it will be on June 21st?”
“Because I can’t get on. There’s so much to do. Seemed a good moment to waste time on an interview.” She smiles apologetically. I have been put in my place but weirdly I feel a kind of freedom through it.
“So”, she says – pointing at a chair, “What do you want to know?”
“Oh everything.” I get my phone out.
“I recommend pen and paper.”
She hands them to me.
“How did you think up this idea in the first place?”
“Brecon Beacons 2009.”
“That long ago?”
“Well it started just as a flippant remark in the car, at the end of a mini-break. We’d just been on a most magical walk along this stream with little waterfalls, but as soon as we came out of the dip we could hear this constant drone of a busy A road, sirens even. So I said to Gian: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had just one day in the year when all machinery noise stopped. What would that be like? What would that do to people? Especially in the cities…'”
“And what did he say?”
“Oh he pooh-poohed the idea immediately. Said it was unworkable, but I remembered…” She offers me a cardigan. I decline but she holds it out and I take it. It’s not my colour, but she’s right. Despite the fire I am starting to feel distinctly chilly.
“Remembered what?” I asked.
“How it was when the volcano in Iceland erupted and no planes could fly”
“I remember that too. A damned nuisance. I was due to fly to a conference. Could have been a jolly…”
“The sky was completely blue.”
“As if The Universe wanted to show us.”
“What the sky used to be like, not so long ago. Without any straight lines in it. Without man’s machines. The joy I felt that day. An unexpected wonderful joy. It stayed with me, see – then I had the Brecon Beacons chat and the two – one a memory – one a vision – I guess they must have started to coalesce somewhere in my brain.”
There was a loud crack and Nadia immediately fell onto her knees, put the tips of two fingers into her mouth – picked something off the rug and threw it into the fire.
“It wasn’t until our good friend Tom was staying – 2012. You know – there’s something about living with someone for a week: in a way you run out of things to say, in a way that is exactly when you really start talking. I told him the idea and he loved it – ran with it, as the saying goes. Gave me enough encouragement to start.”
“You’ve been working on this for four years?” I ask, aghast – thinking about my own short attention span.
“It’s been a rushed job, I’ll admit that. But it needed the urgency to ever make it work. Would you like a sandwich?” I decline.
“What were the biggest obstacles?” I ask.
“Oh, we are still hitting huge obstacles. On a daily basis. I mean the things you think would be difficult – like getting the electricity companies to turn the electricity off all over the country for a day turned out to be one of the easiest objectives to achieve: Tom’s idea of suggesting they donated money to charity for the energy saved in creating the electricity was a genius idea. They aren’t a bad bunch, but the media is always on their backs. Of course we were immediately concerned for hospitals, for people on life support machines – I didn’t want to cause any deaths – but again, the GMC turns out to be an extremely flexible and helpful organisation. Of course my dream of a day of Learning to Listen soon got cut right down. More so when the trade unions started talking about job losses that would occur. It all looked really dodgy, and then there was a turning point.”
“Tell me about that.”
“Well it’s hard to describe. It kinda crept up on us. It was the people, see.”
I raised an eyebrow and made a carry-on kind of gesture with my hand. But there was quite a pause. She was looking into middle space. I cleared my throat.
“That’s not right. It was one person, then another person, then another…all thinking for themselves. Not being dictated to. Not acting as a pack. Just thinking – ‘that would be nice. I could go visit my mother’s grave and just hear the sounds of nature for once – I’d like that’. ‘ I could take the kids out onto our tenth floor balcony – it would be a memory we would always have together’. ‘I could’ – the letters, emails, texts, tweets started to come in – the people of England, as individuals – all wanted this 10 minutes of peace, this space, this moment – and many, no most, had no idea what really to expect but they were excited. See out there?”
She points. I look.
“It was like that cherry tree. It looked dead for a long time. Then the buds started to swell. One day I saw one pink flower, the next another and now – just look at it. When individuals think for themselves, realise that their one voice in the wilderness can…” She laughs.
“I’m getting carried away. Sorry. I better get on with some paperwork, if you’ve got everything you need?”
And she had ushered me out of the front door before I could start breathing again.
As I walked to my car I wondered how to end this article. Perhaps she is right. Perhaps all it takes is people thinking for themselves, but where would I be if that happened? Out of a job? I’d been touched in a special place but I had my deadline and I needed to think of a way to end this article. How about this?
Everyone knows about the Learning to Listen project by now, apart from hermits living off the grid, I guess – and that’s the point isn’t it? They don’t need the project. They already know how to listen, and what to listen to.
© Nadia Kingsley 2016