Marcus Berkmann

A deafening silence

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The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss

Nick Coleman

Cape, pp. 272, £

One morning in 2007, the music critic Nick Coleman woke up to find that he was profoundly deaf in one ear. ‘The silence did not descend silently, however. It made a small sound. You might compare it to the sound of a kitten dropping on to a pillow.’ Within an hour this pffff had developed a pulse, and over the next few days it evolved into an unceasing clamour of clanks, zizzes and whistles. By now Coleman was in hospital and doctors were scratching their heads, as they usually do with tinnitus. I can remember the eyes of my doctor glazing over with boredom when I told him about my own tinnitus. When he heard that I wrote about music, and had been to far too many deafening gigs over the years, his disapproval hardened. A scribble on the pad, and I was on my way. Next!

Coleman’s tinnitus, however, was on another level to mine, several storeys higher in the Tower of Song. As well as losing his hearing in his right ear completely and permanently, his balance was shot and almost all sensory perception had become agonising. ‘It is not the amplitude of the noise that does my head in but the complex irregularity of the signal. Six voices rabbiting over supper is worse than any pneumatic drill; a crunched crisp packet hurts more than a car alarm.’ Music, in particular, was impossible to listen to. ‘Ever since I can remember I have had music playing in my head, at all hours and in most circumstances… Where most people have a mind, I have nice music playing.’

How to go on? Speaking as a coward, I can safely say that I would have been on the plane to Dignitas by this point, but before Coleman could even drop the word ‘suicide’ into normal conversation, his wife told him that she wasn’t having any of it. We should be glad that she did, for while coming to terms with his condition — maybe as a way of doing so — he wrote this quietly excellent and very particular memoir of a life steeped in music. To appreciate what he lost, first we must understand what he had before.

Anyone who has dabbled in rock criticism knows how hard it is to write usefully or coherently, let alone entertainingly, about music. You are trying to describe something that is essentially indescribable, the eel that slips out of your fingers whenever you grasp it. But unlike most in the trade, Coleman really can write. Ideas and original observations teem from his vast brain. His is the ceaseless quest for the sublime, but he is no less aware, or appreciative, of the ridiculous. Of the Stones’ ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)’, ‘In some ways it’s a frightful piece of work. It passes through the listener’s mind like a cortège of drunks. I love it so much I would like it played at my funeral.’ He writes elegantly on jazz, Christmas carols, prog rock, Amy Winehouse. A chapter that starts with a memory of his teenage best friend’s sister’s love of Motown Chartbusters Volume 3 ends with a detailed and loving analysis of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’.

And everything is placed within the context of a 1970s adolescence in the Fens, with its attendant friendships, bus journeys, humiliations and heartbreaks. One girl he admired from afar had ‘two vast eyes of such ineffable plangency that I felt sure that, were they ever to fasten on me and speak silently of the sadness within, I might actually faint.’ She never shows the slightest interest in him, needless to say.

This is a book for anyone who grew up with pop music, listens to it still and has spent too much time thinking about it and talking about it. But it’s also a book about love and loss and middle age and looming mortality, written with grace and the driest imaginable humour. I’m not sure I can recommend it highly enough.