It’s been an “onwards and upwards” curve for me ever since I was switched on and every few days something further seems to slot into place in terms of the quality of sound. The best way I can describe it is that I can hear more and more of the component parts of sound. For example, as I type right this minute I don’t just hear each individual key going, I can hear the sound as I depress the key, then the noise as it comes up again, by which time my fingers have already moved to another key (for I’m a touch-typist): a continuous interleaved sound of keys rising and falling. Symphony No.1 for Mac Keyboard in D minor . . .
When I was first switched on all of two months ago the noise in the car was tremendous and overpowering. I couldn’t bear the babble of the radio on top of all the other noises – engine noise, tyre noise, indicator, Bear talking. It was all *too much*. Then Bear gradually reintroduced the radio and the indicator used to override the music. Now I can pick out what I need to listen to – I’m aware of the indicator but I can continue listening to the music, or I pick out Bear’s voice above the music or the indicator. The other day I commented on the clarity of speech on the radio. I remarked that it wasn’t just a babble but the speaker was clear and every word distinct (even if I didn’t understand the words, they were beautifully distinct from one another, measured and modulated), not shouty, breathy, or gabbly. Bear grinned: “Well, it’s what you’d expect of Radio 4 . . .” BBC English is not yet dead! So off I went to investigate the Radio 4 website and fulfil a long-term ambition: to listen to the Shipping Forecast (available on iPlayer, with a transcript on the programme’s own site).
Something which has surprised me a great deal has been the way in which people’s voices rise and fall – not just the tonality of their voices, but how they sustain formal public speaking – a talk, lecture, reading, or broadcast. Some people will emphasise the first few words of a sentence, then their voice will die away to pick up again with the next sentence, as if they were an illuminated manuscript with an opening capital followed by plainer script and other, capitals highlighted to a lesser degree. Others, more experienced speakers, I think, will keep up a continuous rise and fall of intonation and emphasis, while maintaining a fairly even volume – not monotonous, and adjusted for pitch and intonation, but much more consistent: as if they were pages written in late Saxon minuscule, influenced by a Carolingian hand, all in black, plainly but elegantly written. Even if you do not understand Latin or Old English – essentially English prior to the Norman Conquest – you cannot but admire the neatness of the script in the Exeter Book, its even spacing, and the subtle variations introduced by cursive “s” (the long S which looks like an uncrossed “f”) and runic letters such as “eth” (ð) and “thorn”, (þ) forms of “th” which remain in use in Icelandic today. So even if I couldn’t understand the words of the first Radio 4 speaker I heard, I could admire his voice (oh yes, it was a he!) The Shipping Forecast speaker is always modulated and even. There are some speakers who are very animated – using every trick in the book to keep their audience interested, gesture, facial expression, eye contact with the audience (oh, how important that is!) and above all, brevity. It’s like the full-colour explosion that you can see in a manuscript such as the Lindisfarne Gospels (whose “proper” name, BL Cotton Nero D.iv, a reflection of its former arrangement in Sir Robert Cotton’s library, 4th shelf, 4th book along, is immeasurably appealing.) Note how the first few letters of an opening page are fused together to make a rich work of art which can be admired by anyone who cannot read (the majority at the time it was written) but satisfying to decipher for those who can, and a translation, added in the 9th century, between the lines from the Latin into spiky, prickly Old English (with more of these runic letters), as if they were subtitles for those whose Latin wasn’t so good. A truly accessible work of art of dazzling virtuosity and infinite variation, like the best speakers.
It’s a good analogy for how I hear now, and it’s really interesting that we can’t talk about hearing without using the language of sight: it’s a very ancient metaphor embedded in the way we perceive the world. We expect people to visualise what we’re talking about (“Do you see what I mean?”) What’s astounded me is how natural things sound – the beepy quality went off very quickly – and it seems very natural to hear. It’s almost as if my ear’s been asleep for over 30 years. In those 30 years – I remember discussing with a friend who had lived in Germany whether the Berlin Wall would fall, and she said: “Not in our lifetimes.” Perestroika and glasnost are now historical concepts. When I was a student folks agitated to free Nelson Mandela, and now he’s not only free, he’s a RETIRED president of South Africa. The last time I heard anything a woman had just become Prime Minister of the UK and the States ended up with their first black President before I could hear again. The Miners’ Strike was just a visual thing to me: ugly scenes, but no ugly sounds. I remember where I was when Princess Di died, and of course, since then we have had 9/11 and 7/7.
And while we’re in reminiscing mode, cochlear implants were only just becoming available. In 1985 I was offered a CI, after being totally deaf for some 6 or 7 years. It would only have been a single-channel implant, with far greater risks in the operation – the risk of having the facial nerve partially or wholly severed with consequent paralysis. It wasn’t a risk I was prepared to take, and after a huge and wholly avoidable mix-up at the hospital I took myself out of the NHS system – I wasn’t prepared to trust the hospital with my face or ear when they couldn’t even book me a simple appointment properly and wasted my time. I had actually even asked them to double-check that the consultant was available, and they blithely assured me he was, when I could see in front of my eyes on the reception desk in the diary: ON LEAVE. So I went up to London to see him, only for him, predictably, to be on leave and the receptionists running round like headless chickens trying to rectify the mistake and find someone, anyone, who could see me.
So off I went to university and then another university and then out into the world of work: I have now worked for the same organisation for 18 years, though I’ve had different posts within that organisation. Got married to the Bear. Fast forward 20 years. I returned to the NHS system to be seen by a consultant who visibly quailed at my rather blank audiogram. This consultant referred me to the CI consultant and after all the tests – CAT, MRI, psychological, balance, the general consensus was that I had a brain and was compos mentis . . . oh, and of course I qualified. Hard not to when my audiogram was as blank as that really, with scores right down on the bottom axis, but because I was doing well I wasn’t their highest priority. They warned me I would have to wait, so OK. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. I waited so long that the hospital’s policy of only offering two brands and you’d get a say but no guarantee of your choice, as they alternated between them, became offering three makes and “which colour would you like that in?”
Now it’s rapidly becoming a distant memory that I couldn’t hear anything for so long, like waking up from a dream and the dream disappears leaving you with, at best, an impressionistic feeling or memory of a scene from the dream. Yet in some ways those years were the best of my life. I had a pretty rough time at school and I discovered myself at university and I’ve never turned down any opportunity or invitation, but just grabbed life: one life, to go, thanks very much. The soundtrack to my life has been missing but – I just got on with it. I just have to get on with it now because it was meant to be NOW and not THEN, so no sniffles for the past, and for getting married without hearing any of the music.
In my world, I’ve gone from silent films to talkies by way of Technicolor.