This was the question posed by Nick Coleman at an event at the Independent Bath Literature Festival chaired by Christopher Cook in support of Coleman’s book, The Train in the Night.
Coleman is a vastly experienced music journalist who, in a dramatic and brutal twist of fate, recently lost his hearing in one ear via Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss. He had woken one morning feeling a little under the weather, made his wife a cup of tea and got back into bed when his world seemed to end: “It [the ear] simply went ffffff, like an old tele that needed retuning,” Coleman told Cook.
The deafness, which increased swiftly, was accompanied by screaming tinnitus, loss of balance, rampant nausea, and aural distortion and hypersensite hearing in the good ear - in fact at one point during the talk, Coleman visibly jumped when someone on the front row crinkled their bag. Coleman was utterly scathing of NHS GP practices in the wake of that morning, where, he says, he was treated as “a statistic being processed.” When a weeping, shaking Coleman saw his GP, the doctor told him to go to bed for four days. Had the journalist received a steroid injection into his ear within 24 hours of the event – possibly caused by a “killer migraine” in his sleep – he would likely have kept his hearing. He only discovered this months later when he finally saw a specialist.
Coleman talked of losing his hearing like a person suffering from bereavement, looking at the ceiling to collect his phrasing, sometimes pausing or cutting sentences short. And the part in that grief of losing the ability to listen to music pleasurably cannot be underestimated.
“I re-encountered the record selection on return from hospital a couple of weeks later,” said Coleman. “I had to avoid contact.” Music was not just entertainment for him, but “a GPS for the soul.”
Music had formed Coleman’s personality, first as a choirboy in the Cambridgeshire fens, then as a would-be punk, and finally as a music journalist. The removal of this was like a “little death” for him. “You are not the person who perceives the world,” he said of the difference between the inner and the outer; “One does worry one is in danger of losing one’s sense of self.”
That sense of self was, he suggested, something he first became aware of when lying in bed as a child, listening to a train pass across the fens in the night and becoming overwhelmed with a sense of longing. “The train in the night has haunted me my whole life,” said Coleman.
Unusually for an author talk, the questions at the end of the event were a highlight, since many of the audience had suffered similar hearing loss to Coleman. There was a feeling that they were looking to him for answers, that this gentle man spoke for them, and that when he said “The brain wants to fix itself” or “The big word is not ‘recovery’ but ‘adaptation’,” he was giving them hope.
While the music Coleman is able to listen to has changed, he has also discovered strength in adversity. “I don’t think I’m a different person at all,” he told one questioner. “But the work has been rewarding and I’ve produced a book I’m proud of… Love and work are the things that are going to get you out of a hole.”
Nick Coleman’s The Train in the Night is out now, published by Jonathan Cape.