Observer article by Jay Rayner

Quiet, please: Jay Rayner’s silent retreat

Is silence golden?: Jay Rayner at the silent retreat at Woodbrooke.

Being quiet doesn’t come naturally to Jay Rayner. So we sent him on a silent retreat. But could the disputatious food critic make it through a day without speaking? Find out  Is silence golden?: Jay Rayner at the silent retreat at Woodbrooke. Photograph: Alex Telfer for the Observer

Jay Rayner

Jay Rayner

Iam just 30 minutes into my silent retreat when it hits me: I hate the sound of my own voice. Sure, my lips aren’t moving, but I can hear me. My brain has gone into overdrive. There’s nothing I can do to make the damn thoughts in my head shut up. God, but I’m noisy. It wasn’t what I expected. When it was first suggested that I try shutting up for 24 hours, I thought of the process in terms of absence. Mostly I thought of it as an absence of me. My voice isn’t just a bit of equipment, like my hands or feet. It is me. As a broadcaster I speak for a living. I have recorded 10-hour-long audio versions of my own books. I talk therefore I am.

I genuinely do not fear silence. Fear suggests worry. I just hate it. I hate the thought of a table surrounded by people with nothing to say to each other. How can people be that wordless? Silence with others is a bedside vigil in the terminal hours. I became a journalist specifically because it allows me to ask strangers impertinent questions. I live for disclosure, for a guided tour of the messy stains that we all leave on the bed sheets of life, and for that you need a voice. You did what? With whom? And when? How marvellous! Now it turned out that, when forced into silence, the only person I would be asking questions of me was me, and I wasn’t especially interested in the answers.

I like to describe myself as a noisy Jew because, in the absence of religious ritual or picky eating, my noisiness is my most obviously Jewish characteristic. I learned it at the dinner table, where Jews learn everything. When I was nine, I secretly recorded the family dinner table conversation, a clamour of voices talking over each other, with me constantly failing to be heard. I played the tape to my parents to demonstrate how I, the youngest, was being excluded from the family conversation. They listened, smiled and shrugged as if to say: “Get a bigger voice.” So I did.

Now I was being asked to mislay that voice. In doing so I would, at least, be bang on trend. Famous actors and models Emma Watson and Gisele Bundchen have been quite noisy about their recent experiments with being silent. The “wellness travel industry”, of which retreats are a major part, is a global business worth billions. There are yoga and meditation retreats. There are those to help deal with anxieties and phobias, or simply the emotional debris of a messy divorce. It is “me” time beneath a thin veneer of the faux-medicinal. It is an invitation to live in the moment, unshackled from social media or the ever-present Wi-Fi soup, because a surfeit of connections has apparently left us disconnected from the people that matter most which is to say, ourselves. Or as James Finley, a clinical psychologist who lived in silence as a Trappist monk for years, put it in the Washington Post, the loss of our interior lives is “the crisis of our age… We’re caught up in the momentum of the perceived urgency of the next thing.” For the record, I adore the next thing.

For the most part silent retreats are a tool of those who believe, which I do not. My choices were limited. There are the Buddhists, but they wanted acres of time. The marvellous Leonard Cohen spent years at Buddhist retreats and was even ordained as a Buddhist monk, taking a name that roughly translates as “the Silent One”. Which is slightly surprising for a nice Jewish boy from Montreal.

There are the holy orders – those Trappists and so forth – but they demanded a religiosity I couldn’t fake. And then there are the Quakers. I’ve always had a soft spot for Quakerism, at least in the non-evangelical form generally practised among the 17,000 followers in the UK. I regard the Quakers, born amid the chaos of the mid-17th century, as the last step on the road to the Enlightenment and a victory of reason over hokum. As practised in Britain it locates the divine within its individual followers, and does away with a priesthood.

The Quakers have been at the heart of social justice movements, including prison reform and the abolition of slavery, and have founded some of Britain’s most forward-thinking family firms including the confectioners Fry’s, Rowntree’s and, of course, Cadbury’s. Woodbrooke, the Quaker study and conference centre in leafy Selly Oak, Birmingham, was originally the family home of George Cadbury before he donated it to the movement. It is only a mile from Bournville, the model village he built for his company’s workers in the late-19th century. For a modest fee I could go to Woodbrooke specifically to shut the hell up.

“We’re not a monastic tradition,” I’m told by Stuart Masters, a senior programme leader for Quaker teaching at Woodbrooke, shortly after my arrival, “but we do have this peculiar form of worship which is about waiting in silence.” They sit together waiting for God to tell them what to say. If God doesn’t say anything, neither do they. From this has grown the idea of silence as a therapeutic tool. What, I ask, does he see as the benefit? “It’s a bit like a muddy, churning stream. When you stop and settle there’s a clearing of the water. Things can emerge in the silence that you’ve been avoiding.”

I ask if I can disconnect from the world by surrendering my iPhone to him. He smiles. “We do rather believe in personal responsibility.” So no, I can’t. Is it OK to read? Yes, he says, reading would be sensible. What about playing the piano? There is one at Woodbrooke. Stuart shrugs. “That’s for you to decide.” He shows me around the building, with its library and canteen, hardwearing brown carpets and general air of intense thought. He shows me the door to the office where there will always be someone “in case you have an existential crisis. It does happen,” he says. I blink.

I am given a small sign to wear, on a chain round my neck. It says: “I’m being quiet.” Now, Stuart says, “Nobody will speak to you.” Finally, just after lunch, I stop talking. I have a room in a red-brick house off the main stucco building, a simple space with a bed, a desk, no TV and an air of quiet desperation. I tuck my phone away and stare out into the gardens at the fast-falling afternoon light. I feel the need to start being silent in an active way, so I put on my coat and head for Bournville, a mile’s walk away. Quickly those voices build in my head, talking to me, asking me whether I can do this. Of course I can, I reply soundlessly. After all, as someone who writes for a living, I’m constantly talking to myself, shaping lines. I realise I’m pursing my lips. I’m trying to stop sounds escaping.


I pass Bournville’s huddle of Arts and Crafts-style red-brick buildings and find myself standing in front of Cadbury World, the confectionery-themed attraction. It’s closed. But now I desperately crave chocolate. I pop into a newsagents, pick up a Kit Kat and hesitate. This is going to be tricky. The shopkeeper tells me the price. He thanks me for the cash. I nod. I smile. I look sheepish. I feel like an arse. I note my “quiet” sign is hidden.

Back in my room I pull out a toy I had been given by a friend, a mini-Lego-style grand piano. I concentrate on building the tiny grand piano, listening all the time to the bloody voices in my head. I’d thought the task would take a couple of hours but, looking at my watch realise only 45 minutes have passed. Time stretches ahead of me. I consider the bed. I recognise that, for the next day, I will be perpetually on the edge of masturbation, mother nature’s friendly displacement activity.

I wander over to the main house, passing others staying there on residential courses. They glance at my “I’m being quiet” badge then nod approvingly. I want to shout back, “Really! It’s not all that!” In the brightly lit lounge, I pretend to read while listening in to the bubble and roll of other people’s conversations. It feels like passive talking; as if I’m participating in the conversation without being part of it.

At dinner I sit at the “silent” table. No one joins me. They huddle at other tables heads turned towards each other like humans ought. I am alone. I’m not having an existential crisis. Jesus isn’t calling. I am just bored. The voices in my head have quietened a little. In a self-serving cyclical process I am now merely forming sentences for this article. At last it becomes clear: I really don’t need to be silent to examine myself. I’m examining myself all the time. It’s called being a writer. It’s what we do. Talking to others is my way of silencing the absurd levels of introspection.

I slip into a meeting room to practise scales on an old grand piano that’s tucked away in a corner. I tell myself that repetitive scales have a meditative quality which makes it OK, but they are tricky and I catch myself muttering under my breath at each stumble. Without pausing I segue guiltily into playing “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. As the last note dies, I realise it is the one moment when my head has genuinely been empty of thought. Wordlessly, I head off early to bed.

Next morning I go to the 8.30am worship. I want to be silent with other people. It takes place in a warm, carpeted room with chairs set out in an inward-facing square two rows deep. There are 15 mostly middle-aged women in there, some with eyes closed, others staring into the middle distance. It turns out that it’s less awkward being silent with people than alone. I wonder if I will finally hear voices. I don’t. I just hear myself asking whether I will finally hear voices. I tell myself to shut up.

At 9am a handshake indicates the end of worship. God had not moved any of my companions to speak and he certainly wasn’t interested in talking to me. A woman stands up and says: “Have a lovely day and remember, be kind to yourself.” I take the latter as an invitation. I’ve really had quite enough of me. I go to my room, pick up my phone and call a cab company. I say, “Just to the station.” Oh how, I love the sound of my own voice. I’m back.

Jay stayed at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, which offers self-guided single and group silent retreats. His silent retreat package including one night’s B&B and evening meal starts at £96.50 (