THE CHATTER OF BIRDSONG

THE TIMES Deafness is a peculiar affliction. Unless you are born deaf, or perhaps if it is suddenly thrust upon you through disease or accident, it’s a cunning and sneaky disability.

My hearing has deteriorated gradually over the past ten years. The tell-tale signs were obvious: I had the telly volume on full; I was always saying “What?”; and sometimes I missed out on conversations completely. Even so, I didn’t think I was deaf — I just didn’t hear so well. Five years ago I went to my GP.

My doctor’s reaction was that I was lazy: in other words, that I was just not listening. But I persisted and was eventually given an appointment with a specialist at the Royal Free Hospital in North London. The hearing test established that the central frequencies in both my ears had collapsed. These are the levels appropriate for listening to speech and to other mid-tones like birdsong.

Back then I was given a small device for my left ear that promised to alleviate the condition. It didn’t. Instead it amplified all sound, so that standing in Soho I could hear a crisp packet rustle in Camden and a dog-whistle blow in Brixton, but I still couldn’t hear speech properly. I gave up on the crude electronics and persisted with listening to the world as I knew it.

Partial hearing in a busy environment is a huge hassle. The background din of other’s chatter merges into a wall of white noise. I’d assumed that birds just didn’t sing in the city any more. All the tiny squeaks, taps and aural details that go to making up the big sound-pictures of our environment got lost, and were unmissed in my memory. It’s surprisingly easy to slowly adapt to a life that’s muffled.

Apart from hearing loss I have tinnitus — a constant whining in my ears. Some days are better than others, some hours almost silent, but others, quite frankly, are bloody noisy. It’s loudest when the world is quiet; tinny whistles and droning make for a surreal background noise that I naively supposed everyone else heard — literally the sound of silence.

Reactions to deafness are diverse. Impatience is frequent. Shopkeepers become irritated after they’ve repeated themselves two or three times — but not as irritated as I am, at myself, for having to ask over and over again. Sometimes I’m spoken to in a slow, patronising drawl; each syllable is painfully accented as if a moron were being addressed. I might be deaf but I’m not stupid. Because there are no outward indicators that signpost the hard of hearing, my failure to respond to a question was often mistaken for bad manners.

I felt that my hearing loss had got worse, and recently returned for more tests at the Royal Free. On this occasion the specialists decided to fit each ear with a digital hearing aid — an apparatus that can be tuned specifically to what’s needed. This is now common practice throughout the NHS. Moulds were taken from the outer ear canals and I returned last week to have the hearing aids fitted.

I had a peculiar sense of trepidation. I was afraid that I’d be flooded with new sound and might not want to hear the world as it is: I’m quite used to the perception I already have. I also wondered if having a lump of beige plastic sprouting from each lug might mark me out — a stigma stuck on my head that said “Handicapped”.

The tuning was quick. I was hooked up to a machine while wearing the aids and what can only be described as a high-tech tiara. New sounds were immediately detectable. The ambient noise of the hospital suddenly opened up: air-conditioning systems and clatter became hyper apparent. I wasn’t sure if I liked what I heard.

Taking the bus home was a shock. I’ve not heard passing conversation for years, and suddenly hearing the chatter of fellow passengers caught me out. I felt like a spy or voyeur. I wasn’t actively eavesdropping: I was only hearing as others do. Yet I felt as if I were somehow trespassing into private worlds.

The same thing happened on the street. I can’t quite get over catching snippets of conversation that aren’t being directed at me. There’s great novelty in this. But the din of traffic is another story. An overall thrum is constant. It’s on two distinct levels: passing cars are much louder, but the incessant metallic growl of faraway vehicles really bothers me.

Using a mobile phone is difficult with hearing aids. I have the volume on my handset turned to its highest level, so hearing the caller hasn’t been a problem in the past. Now I have to position the receiver to my hearing aid rather than ear, with mixed results: if it’s not perfectly aligned then I can’t hear a thing. Joan Collins unclips a ten-carat diamond stud when she answers the dog ‘n’ bone; I take my new ear off.

What’s most satisfying is being able to pick up on the subtleties and nuances of sound. In supposedly quiet places like Hampstead Heath I can detect both natural and man-made noise — traffic again. Birdsong has made a welcome return, a type of chatter that is delightful. The rustle of leaves and small aural details create a vivid sound-picture that I’d given up on before.

Listening to the world through digital hearing-aids is a little like listening to it through an iPod. Everything seems so close and vibrant that it might be fictitious, or somehow orchestrated especially for me. It isn’t so much about loudness as about depth. My sound-world is now three-dimensional. This is simultaneously revelatory, disturbing and strangely euphoric.

These last few days have been fascinating, although I’m still acclimatising to the devices and haven’t quite found a volume level that works for me.

My specialist said, “Sound is a wondrous thing, but there is a value-driven distinction between sound and noise.” I now have the enviable option of being able to switch on and off to the hubbub of the city — a choice that many people would wish for.

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