Most people, when asked if they would rather be deaf or blind, say they would rather be deaf. I would say that, too. Deafness is obviously a wretched and isolating condition, but it appears to be less absolute in its effects than blindness. A blind person simply can’t see anything. With the deaf it is more complicated. Dame Evelyn Glennie, whose deafness didn’t stand in the way of her becoming one of the world’s greatest percussionists, contends that hearing is just a form of touch; that if your ears aren’t working, you can feel sounds as vibrations in other parts of the body. ‘The low sounds I feel mainly in my legs and feet, and high sounds might be in particular places on my face, neck and chest,’ she writes; and she claims she still has perfect pitch. Thomas Edison’s deafness didn’t prevent him discovering how to record sound, and Beethoven’s deafness did not impair his ability to write great music.
The blind, on the other hand, do at least attract sympathy. Other people go out of their way to help them, steer them across the road, and so on. The deaf have no such luck. People just find deafness irritating; they get tired of shouting and repeating themselves, and frustrated by being misunderstood. Sometimes they even come to suspect that a person isn’t as deaf as he pretends, that he is just using deafness as a cover for the fact that he can’t be bothered to listen. I have sometimes been guilty of this myself. My father was always saying in his old age that he couldn’t hear anything; but once, when I tiptoed past his study hoping to get out-of-doors without having to stop to talk to him, he shouted from his desk: ‘Will you come in here for a moment, Alexander.’ I thought I had rumbled him, but perhaps he was just feeling vibrations like Evelyn Glennie.
Now it’s my turn to irritate people. In recent years my hearing has become progressively worse. I am not terribly deaf, but deaf enough to mishear words and find myself constantly saying ‘What?’. While I secretly resent the fact that others won’t speak more clearly and loudly in the first place, their own annoyance at having to repeat themselves is made very plain. It is all an impediment to domestic harmony. So in the hope of improving the atmosphere, I have just invested in a pair of absurdly expensive hearing aids.
I won’t say what I paid for them; only that they were far more expensive than anything else I have bought since I last purchased a motor car. They cost, for example, many times more than the Macintosh laptop computer on which I am writing this. They are tiny little things, fitting almost invisibly behind the ears, but mightily sophisticated marvels of miniature electronic workmanship. They play different little tunes to tell you different things, such as when the volume has changed and when their batteries need replacing; and they are accompanied by a device called a ‘streamer’, which you hang round your neck and activate when you feel like listening to music stored on your smart phone or conducting a hands-free telephone conversation.
They may be tiny, but they came in two large boxes full of little tools for such tasks as cleaning them, de-waxing them and replacing exhausted batteries, and two long booklets of instructions that would defy comprehension by anyone technologically challenged. These booklets also contain long lists of warnings — for example, that the batteries shouldn’t be mistaken for pills and swallowed, and that they could explode if they got too hot. All this is quite testing for a senior citizen, but the important thing is do they actually work?
Well, the answer so far seems to be yes. I hear much better, I say ‘What?’ much less often, and other people are showing greater tolerance towards me. On the other hand, they work rather too well. When I run the bath, it sounds like Niagara Falls, and when I take an old banknote from my pocket, it crackles brightly as if it had just come off the press. I had supper in a pub garden the other day and the conversation at my table was almost drowned out by that of the louts at the table behind me, of which I could unfortunately hear every word. But if these hearing aids succeed nevertheless in restoring calm to my life, they may yet turn out to have been worth the investment.