Jonathan Cape, £16.99, 264p. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Train in the Night, By Nick Coleman
Friday 27 January 2012
Grown-ups sit round dinner tables and actually discuss which would be worse to lose: sight or hearing? Can they see themselves? Can they hear themselves? Nick Coleman wasn't given the choice. He plonked down two cups of tea, put his head back on the pillow and pffffff, one ear went permanently offline. A man whose life had been devoted to the perfect, affective order we impose on sound, making some music himself but mostly listening and reporting from its frontlines, was suddenly, brutally returned to what William James called a "blooming, buzzing confusion". Coleman's head was invaded by a noise like a half-blown amplifier or the sound you used to get for three days after a Man gig. Welcome to tinnitus hell.
He did what anyone who'd just lost a sense might do. After he stopped throwing up, he begged some time with Oliver Sacks. The famous neurologist had just lost the sight in one eye (what are the chances? Which was worse?) and was also thinking wistfully about the philosophical power of stereoscopy. Sacks offered little succour and not much explanation of Coleman's curious new psychological state, which allowed him to cry buckets over Elgar's "Nimrod" and Purcell at the Cenotaph on telly but left him dry and not high when listening to the same music on his (not-)stereo, the familiar oceanic feelings turned paper-thin and two-dimensional.
If his book went no further than this, it would be just another medico-confessional, full of brave jokery and lippy stoicism: inspiring to the similarly afflicted, a vicarious relief to those who still get full surround sound. But it is very much more than that. The train in the night is an actual one, a late, late milk freight that rattled across Coleman's East Anglian childhood wakefulness, audible in every rivet and coupling. But it also stands, more importantly, for the part music plays in every life that started in a flat, fenny landscape without much colour or detail. To have that given to you - and then taken away.
Coleman doesn't get much insight from Sacks – or from Daniel Levitin, a sound engineer who wrote This is Your Brain on Music – but he does intuitively understand the ways in which music attaches itself to experience, taking significance from its proximate association with first sex, suicide, work, hope, Cenotaph: any lived cusp you choose to mention. It is possible to reconstruct favourite music in the head. I tell friends that I get (almost) as much pleasure from reading a score as I do from listening, but it isn't true. What you don't get that way is the madeleine of a snare tap with overlaid whump of tambourine that is the very first sound on Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine". Even remembering where you were when you first identified it doesn't quite match up to the existential horror of not being able to hear it again.
If The Train in the Night went no further than the list of life-changing music that drops in at the end, like an index, it would be just another retread of High Fidelity, but Nick Hornby's book is a boy's train-set in comparison to this. Coleman does nothing less than stage a noble rescue of that gauzy 18th-century girl, Taste. He explains better than anyone I've read the difference between liking certain music and being "into" it. He's fallen out of love with jazz, which is sad but understandable. His favourite song ever is "Tumbling Dice", and ditto to that. He can't hear any of it properly any more, which is sad, sad, sad. But it is a kind of self-sacrifice, as if Nick Coleman lost his hearing so that we can hear more clearly again.
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