The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss, By Nick Coleman
Notes from the day the music died
Sunday 05 February 2012
Unexpected losses and self-contemplation traditionally go together. So when Nick Coleman, a middle-aged music lover and critic, formerly of this paper, lost hearing function in one ear, his entire relationship with his life's most consistent pleasure was challenged. This wasn't comedy deafness, the selective hearing beloved of sitcom writers, but an endless internal soundtrack that maddeningly never ceased and very often felt like explosions within his skull. Worse still, he could no longer make sense of sound. Old favourites no longer offered the slightest emotional connection, while assimilating new material was impossible.
Entirely incapacitated and confronted by two whole walls of records, none of which he can bear to hear, Coleman retraces his steps through his love of music, and attempts to reconstruct his formative years while alternately describing his rather more extraordinary struggles with his debilitating condition. So it's back to Seventies Cambridge, where grammar school lads debate the value of prog rock and sit, nay, lie down to enjoy live music – matters of life and death to 15-year-olds.
That's not so far from fellow East Anglian Giles Smith's memoir of an unsuccessful pop career, Lost In Music. But this is much bleaker. In contemporary London, the grown-up, depressed Nick Googles "assisted suicide" in search of practical advice, but finds only ethical debates. Daring to use his Arsenal season ticket, he figures that if the sound of a rustling newspaper is painful then how much worse can it be to revel in the sonic ebb and flow of the crowd. After a late winner breaches the collective tension, he retires to bed for four days, shattered and exhausted by the noise.
Describing life in both the now and then is a balancing trick. His distant youth often seems more vivid than accounts of his wife trying to get some sense out of health professionals. Throughout there's a tacit suggestion that 50 might be a reasonable age to step away from youthful obsessions.
Although he might be settling his accounts with his past, a rambling account of a decades overdue meeting with his never-forgotten teenage crush – "reconnection" overstates it, as she seems not to have noticed his existence at the time – is as squirm inducing as any unexpected noise. Despite manfully resisting the urge to re-edit an uncomfortable youth, it's an unnecessary stab at universality that the book really doesn't need.
Yet it's understandable. Any self-respecting music hack prefers the romantic to prosaic reality. Music journalism thrives on a rapid turnover – of talent, trends, writers even – so an opportunity to contemplate a lifetime in music's thrall is understandably irresistible. Fittingly the book ends with a list: two pages of musicians who have enlivened Coleman's life, his book's true set of acknowledgements. This roll call of names, many now forgotten, means nothing detached from the music they made. Our tastes will die with us, and sometimes before.
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