Few writers have as impressive a cross-genre record as Bella Bathurst. Special, her first novel, was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2003; The Wreckers was shortlisted for a Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction in 2005 and also made into a BBC “Timewatch” documentary; while The Bicycle Book was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2011. And her first and best known-book, The Lighthouse Stevensons, won the 1999 Somerset Maugham Award and still notches up tidy annual sales almost two decades later.
Yet, as Bathurst reveals in Sound: Stories of Hearing Lost and Found (May, Profile/Wellcome Collection), the writing and publishing of these critically acclaimed books coincided with an immensely challenging decade of deafness for their author. In a beguiling blend of memoir, social history, anatomy, neuroscience, biography and anecdote, she looks back on the years when she lost her hearing, and examines what sound, listening and music mean to us, especially when they are taken away.
Bathurst began to go deaf in 1997, when she was in her late twenties. Within a few short months, 80% of her hearing had gone. The diagnosis at the time was that, owing to two head injuries - one in a skiing accident, the other in a car crash - the bones in her middle ear were no longer conducting sound properly and her cochlea (the auditory portion of the inner ear) had also been damaged. Told that the hearing loss was permanent, Bathurst spent much of the next 12 years in a state of denial, pretending she could carry on as before. “I think I made pretty heavy weather of it. There are other ways to go deaf: more well-adjusted ways to handle it. But it was unfortunate that my hearing loss coincided with a period of my life when everyone else was pairing off and having kids, so I had this sense that my deafness was some sort of judgement.” In Sound she puts it even more starkly: “The deafness is...a physical sign of moral infirmity. It is proof I am somehow unsound.”
When we meet in the snug front bar of a hotel in Herefordshire, where Bathurst leads a fascinatingly eclectic freelance life as a writer, photographer, and maker of jewellery and furniture, I tell her how astonished I was to discover from Sound that more than 11 million people in the UK suffer from some form of hearing loss. “It is huge. It’s about one in five of the population. But nobody talks about it, and - aside from some websites and a few very good deaf blogs - nobody writes about it either,” she says.
Bathurst vividly highlights the sheer routine exhaustion that goes with being deaf. “Social situations are knackering, so there’s a tendency to isolate yourself. When you get to the end of the day, having worked very hard to hear, the tendency is to just stay at home and keeping cranking up the volume on the TV. My sense of isolation got worse and worse.” Bathurst is also eloquent about the stigma of being deaf, and how sufferers are often viewed as less intelligent. “I myself associated deafness with being stupid and being old. And I didn’t really want to be either. When everyone else is chatting away and you’re six paragraphs behind, the implication is that you’re slow on the uptake. And that is really tricky to deal with. Also hearing aids were advertised exclusively for OAPs, so I wasn’t massively keen on them either,” she recalls, wryly.
No wonder, then, largely cut off from the hearing world, Bathurst poured her efforts into communication via the written word. “I wore out whole keyboards in the pursuit of connection,” she writes. “The lower I got, the harder I worked.” She thought about dying every day for 10 years. “I rang the Samaritans, but they spoke so quietly I couldn’t hear them.” If you find that funny, you aren’t working hard enough to imagine how distressing going deaf must be.
Despite the profoundly personal reflections it contains, Sound is not just a memoir, and is more accurately described as a social and anatomical history of deafness, which also probes its psychological consequences. Alongside her own experience, Bathurst places that of other deafened people - she makes an interesting distinction between the deaf (those born with hearing loss) and the deafened (those who have lost their hearing later in life). She interviews people from professions where deafness is an occupational hazard, including a ship builder; a former bomb disposal expert; and Sir Peter de la Billière, one of many thousands of military personnel deafened by years in the field of conflict. And in a revelatory interview with Giles Martin, son of the late, legendary music producer Sir George Martin, we discover that his father had significant hearing loss from the 1970s onwards, a time when he was laying down some of his most famous recordings.
Bathurst also gives enthralling information about the physics of sound and the science of acoustics, as well as the anatomy and neurology of hearing, and “all the gifts that come with it”. So sensitive is human hearing that the quietest sound we can hear is a million times quieter than the loudest audible sound. Listening is an infinitely precious ability that we must also cherish. “If sound is a thousand times more powerful than we give it credit for, then so too must be the power of being heard,” Bathurst writes.
In 2009, after 12 years of deafness, she was told the cause of her hearing loss had been misdiagnosed, and that, miraculously, hers was one of few operable conditions. After pioneering surgery in France, Bathurst can now hear as well as before. And seven years on, she still marvels at re-hearing even the most humdrum of sounds. “It’s amazing how nostalgic you can be for the sound of your washing machine’s spin cycle.” Sound concludes with a particularly powerful passage about going to a concert given by the Berliner Philharmoniker shortly after her hearing had been restored. “It was the first true music I’d heard in more than a decade and I promise you, I absolutely promise, that if you should ever have cause to question the power of music or its capacity to reset the very cells of you, then try going deaf and then getting your hearing back after 12 years.”
Sound is being published by Profile in association with the Wellcome Collection, following in the footsteps of such lauded titles as Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. In her genre-hopping way, Bathurst is also currently crowdfunding a title through Unbound. Entitled The Long Shot, it tells the story of photojournalist Bert Hardy (“the greatest photographer you’ve never heard of”) and Picture Post, the once mega-selling magazine he worked for.
“What would you most like people to gain from Sound?” I ask Bathurst. In the pause before she answers, I consciously take in the sounds of a fretful child at the next table, the low burr of other conversations and a distant clatter of dishes as bar meals are plated up in the hotel kitchen. “So many people are in denial about their hearing loss, just as I was for more than 10 years,” she says, her voice rising slightly. “So many people have since told me privately, ‘I’m a bit deaf’, or ‘I've damaged my hearing’. I really hope the book helps a few people to come out of the closet about deafness, and removes some of its stigma.”