Whenever, in this moving and clever book about deafness, Bella Bathurst refers to the community of the deaf, she uses the distinct form of a proper adjective: the Deaf, like the Swiss, or the Dutch. Profound deafness is a dominant identity, a country with no territory but possessing a language and customs, and a zealotic, nationalistic loyalty among its subjects: ‘Deaf first, nationality second,’ as one of her interviewees put it. And, unlike the land of the blind, where the one-eyed man is king, in the land of the Deaf the person with a little hearing is a vagrant. Not the Deaf, merely deafened. When the author found herself losing her hearing, she became a stranger in two worlds.
Much of what is in this book will be familiar to those with ‘age-associated’ hearing loss. The conversational hiatus, the joke not got, the words half-cancelled, the first time you see a wasp, with a buzz on it like a B-52, bump against the window pane in silence. What distinguishes Bathurst’s experience, though, is the fact that this took place in her twenties. Every loss intensifies; the debility is more egregious and therefore more isolating.
If the first phase of deafness is denial, it follows that her denial would take a more violent turn than swearing at the telly. She decided that ‘the best way to deal with fear is to hurl myself headfirst at the thing that most frightens me’: in this case, a three-day sailing trip in the Inner Hebrides. They set off; the weather worsened. She couldn’t hear instructions. There was a child on board. Quite soon, we discover that Bathurst also didn’t know how to steer a boat, or what a sheet or a capstan is; whereupon you wonder whether this really is the best way to deal with fear. Nonetheless – and despite her use of the continuous present, which always seems an impediment to the lived moment, as if someone is tugging at your sleeve – it’s a tremendous piece of writing. She brings home the elemental terror of this awful journey – both from the inside and out: so that, while we live every hour of the fear, shame and straining hopelessness of her predicament, we also feel like shaking her. Is she mad? Are her friends mad to take a deaf woman who can’t sail on this jaunt? Did she lie to them? One noted aspect of deafness is its mimicry of the obtuse.
In defiance of deafness’s inwardness, Bathurst has made this memoir curious and outward-facing. In prose that is as lucid as it is imaginatively descriptive, she brings us along in her twelve-year education in the habits of sound: how it works, how it is lost, what means there are to ameliorate deafness and why these are so unsatisfactory. Birds, it turns out, can regenerate the stereocilia, tiny hair cells in the ear’s vortex that allow us to hear because, if they couldn’t identify song, they’d die out. Cursed by our adaptiveness, humans can mate without sound; and, besides, most of us have already mated by the time we go deaf.
Halfway through this book, I started to peer at men drilling the pavements, to see if their ears were plugged. They often weren’t. We take our hearing for granted; as we learn from Bathurst’s interviewees, whose jobs have turned them deaf. Or else we squander it because, paradoxically, it’s too important to protect. Hearing loss and tinnitus are common disorders in the military, where combatants tend to ditch the earplugs in favour of hearing the thing that is coming to kill them. Then, the jobs that make you deaf are the ones where you can least admit to it. How many people knew that George Martin, the great producer of the Beatles, was going deaf in the studio? His son Giles, speaking here in his forties, was ‘my father’s ears’ from the age of eighteen.
As it’s in the title, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Bathurst got her hearing back. It’s the process of loss – which made her more, not less, aware of sound – followed by a late, unexpected restoration, which gives this book its special complexion: a joyful intensity of apprehension across all the senses, concentrated through a mind of high intelligence. Except when it comes to water.