A personal note today, far away from politics and economics and world travel. I have started to wear a hearing aid.
I’ve been pretty deaf in my right ear since a mastoid operation at the age of 10. It was a path-breaking operation at the time – until recently, surgeons had left a large scar behind the ear. My doctor used a new technique that involved operating through the ear drum: I remember as a kid lines of medical students queuing up to look approvingly in my ear. “Mmmm, nice”. I missed my 11+ because I was in hospital, and took it late in a hall where almost everyone else was a polio victim – this was 1955. There were 4,000 cases of polio that year, and Birmingham City’s full-back Jeff Hall died of it. My memory is that the exam room clanked with crutches and sticks. The Salk vaccine came in that year, and for anyone who says that science takes away the mystery of life … yes, well, as the comedian Robin Ince says, try life without it.
So I’ve always been a bit mutt-and-jeff. It’s never bothered me much, though sometimes ignoring people can be awkward or wrongly interpreted (partly because you have to look at people’s lips, not their eyes, which makes you seem shifty). And all hearing is selective. When I was a college Principal, my colleagues reckoned I could hear the college budget when it was being discussed at three hundred yards. The main irritation – and people with bigger hearing problems than me find it infuriating – is when you ask people to repeat what they’ve just said. My wife is patient and kind, but other people tend to assume you’re rather stupid, and need things explained slowly and in a very simple way. Aaaargh ! No, I don’t want a re-interpretation, I don’t want the version for the dim: just bloody repeat what you said. So, the time has come as age took away the sharpness from my good ear, I finally decided to get some electrical help.
Most people know that deafness is not a question of losing the volume control. What happens is that you lose frequencies, usually the higher ones. I love radio, but at home and in my car, the treble is turned up to maximum, and the bass to minimum, to try to compensate. At home, I couldn’t hear the upstairs phone ring. But now, a new world has opened for me. The obvious things are good – going to the theatre last night and hearing every word, having a dinner party conversation with friends – but the striking sounds are the ones you haven’t heard for a while. Birdsong – when did that become so loud ? I actually crinkle supermarket plastic bags, because they sound such fun; and so does turning the pages of a newspaper. When I was a kid, the family word for male urination was ‘having a tinkle’: and I am now reminded of why that was.
The child of a close friend has just had a cochlear implant, and will have the unit turned on in a week or so. That must be an extraordinary business. He has started to blog the experience, and I will follow with interest. Fancy hearing consonants for the first time in your life ! All that is far, far more remarkable and life changing than my minor gadget, but for the moment, I am just having fun listen to my keyboard clatter.