Belfast Telegraph

Sometimes you speak loudest when you say nothing at all

By Nuala McKeever

When I was about 11 I overheard my father saying to some visiting relations: "She's very articulate for her age, isn't she?" He was talking about me. I had just made some comment as I passed around the sandwiches, like a good girl, and they had all laughed. As I left the room, I overheard that line and it lodged in my brain.

Probably it lodged because it was the only compliment I ever remember hearing from him. (He may well have said other things but I don't recall them.) And it was all the more treasured because he said it to other people.


I realised a few years ago that "articulate" was one of the highest accolades I gave to other people. For me, a man who could express thoughts and opinions and make eloquent observations with a smart phrase or an original insight, well.... that'd be me. Take me now Lord! I'm in love!

I even went so far as to wonder whether or not a person's ability to articulate their feelings was directly related to their ability to feel. If you don't know how to express subtlety, does that mean you don't experience subtlety?

I recall a young relation making dinner with her friend. She was trying to say: "The colander is in the big drawer under the microwave." But what came out was: "The thing's in the ....thing, under the .... thing."

I wondered if a lack of readily available words meant she lacked joy and beauty and freedom. Because that's what words meant to me.

I was hooked on the articulate. What would I take to my desert island? Words. Give me words and some wine and cheese and I'd be grand. I've spent my entire life trying to articulate everything through words. Words, language, the most beautiful thing in the whole wide world. Where would we be without words, eh? Well, thanks to Alison Millar of Erica Starling productions and to Guy King, the director, and to the people who took part in Love And Death At City Hall, I've found a new love – no words.

If you didn't see this documentary that was on BBC4 last Wednesday at 9pm, watch it on iPlayer.

It's one of the best pieces of television I've seen in a long, long time.

It simply let people using and working in the Births, Deaths and Marriages department in Belfast City Hall, demonstrate their experiences of love and loss.

At first I thought it was going to stray into some My Big Fat Let's Laugh At People Who Are Less Sophisticated Than Us territory. I didn't trust it at the beginning.

But then I realised that trust was the very thing that made it so special. Guy King obviously spent enough time and had enough evident good will and skill to create a relationship of trust with those who took part.

This trust and skill is what made the programme so deceptively simple and so beautiful. That, and the silences, when there were no words at all.

Like the moment when Arthur, recently widowed, stood at the grave of his wife and son, in the rain. He spoke, then he fell silent, then he looked away, then he looked back and then he sighed...

And for the first time in my life I understood the beauty of inarticulate.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph