Friday, July 31, 2009

Me And My Family On Tenterhooks

For some years now there has been an old photograph curled up in a tight roll sat in the bottom of the box where I keep family photographs. The last time I rolled it open was several years ago. It is in a perilous state, cracked, dried and brittle. I know that I will be able to open it just a few more times before it disintegrates into shards of bromide paper, and then it will be lost for ever. I need to scan it, to preserve it, but I know that the very act of scanning it will destroy the original for ever. For ages I have been trying to work up the courage to make a start on the process, and this morning I took a deep breath, stretched it out and started the scanning and restoration process. The print was on tenterhooks - and so was I.
This is the first scan. You can see that it is already in a poor state. The restoration process should keep me occupied most of the day. But what you can see already is my fathers' family in 1917. Let me introduce them. From the left you have my Auntie Annie, my grandfather Enoch, my grandmother Harriet, my Uncle John, my father dressed in his sailor suit, and finally my Auntie Miriam. As you can see both my grandfather and my Uncle John were in uniform : this is 1917 at the height of the Great War. If you look very carefully you can detect a slightly different background at the part of the photograph where my grandfather was standing. This was because he wasn't actually there when the photograph was taken : he will have been far off in Flanders digging tunnels. It was a standard procedure to "burn" in images of absent soldiers in order to produce family groups even though, in reality, the family has been split open by the war.
Six members of the family, frozen in time in 1917. Over the next six Fridays I will try and tell the stories of each one of them : to unfreeze the image and let it move forward. We will start next Friday with Auntie Annie.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Theme Thursday - Buttons

My mother had a button tin. It was an old toffee tin and it was kept in one of the cupboards in the kitchen. Although the original contents of the tin must have been exciting and inviting to me as a child, it is the eventual contents that remain in my memory. In those days clothes were repaired. In those days buttons were re-sewn on shirts, trousers and jackets : time and time again. In those days clothes were never dispatched to the rag-bin without having all their buttons carefully taken off and lodged in the button tin. The button tin was as much a store of memories as it was a store of tiny pieces of plastic, metal and bone. To riffle through the button tin on a wet afternoon was to revisit times long-gone.
Now, we do not have a button tin. Like most of our generation we are materially wasteful. When buttons fall off shirts, the shirts are cast into a dark place at the back of the wardrobe. When old clothes eventually make it into the waste bin or the clothes bank they do so with almost their full complement of buttons. But, funnily enough, I still have a tin of button memories. It's a virtual tin, to be sure, and the buttons are not the type that my mother saved. But the memories are just as real.
I remember my father had a concertina. He would play it at family parties. It was never a long recital as he only knew two tunes : Moonlight and Roses and Silent Night. He would call the instrument his "button box". As I write this I can remember the feel of the buttons beneath my fingers as I tried to coax a tune from the thing. There was a wonderful simplicity about it : you pressed the button, a valve was opened and a note would emerge.
If I jump forward a good few years I can recall more buttons. The buttons on my first transistor radio. Big buttons, chunky buttons. Buttons that were pleasing to press. Buttons that would take you from the comfort of the Medium Wave, to the mysteries of the Short Wave or the exotic realms of the Long Wave. Buttons that had the power to take you to Luxembourg, Hilversum and Kalumborg.
Jump forward again and I am sat at the wheel of my father-in-laws car. It was a Renault 10 and it had a "revolutionary" semi-automatic transmission which was based on a series of buttons. You could press the button marked "Forward" or the button marked "Backward" or the button marked "Park", leaving the automatic transmission system to sort the gears out. It sounded so easy but, at times, it would prove so difficult.
There was - and still is - a particular hill leading out of Elland called Upper Edge. The gradient must have been unknown in the native France of Renault cars. The car would start up the hill and decide it needed to change down to complete the accent. It would gather speed in the lower gear and decide to change up again. In changing up it would loose revs and decide to shift down again. If you were unlucky the car would remain almost stationary on the hill, continuously shifting from one semi-automatic gear to the next, like the army of the Grand Old Duke of York neither going up nor down. I would sit cursing the ingenuity of the system pressing button after button in the hope that something would happen.
It's been raining this morning and it's been fun sorting through my old button tin. If you want to know how the other participants in Theme Thursday have approached this week's theme you can find all the entries here.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Fire At Atkinson's Mill

In my attempt to visit as many pubs as possible before they all close down, I today went to the Beaumont Arms in Kirkheaton. In my attempt to drink as many excellent pints of beer as possible before I die, I had a pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord. If you want to find out about the pub or the pint take a look at my Great Yorkshire Pubs blog. But if you want to cross the lane from the pub and step back nearly two hundred years, stay where you are.
In the churchyard opposite the pub there is a monument to "the dreadful fate of seventeen children who fell unhappy victims to a raging fire at Mr. Atkinson's Factory" in February 1818. The monument is a stark stone column pointing towards the grey sky.
One of the panels contains a poem telling of "a parent's anguish for a suffering child". Perhaps it caused a tear or two when it was first erected but the poem somehow left me cold and unmoved.
Another panel states "Near this place lie what remained of the bodies of seventeen children, a striking and awful instance of the uncertainty of life and the vanity of human attainments". Uncertainty of life! Vanity of human attainments! I want to scream out loud. I have read the story of the fire at Atkinson's Mill. The fire started when a boy accidentally ignited some cotton with a candle. The mill doors had been locked by the overseer had gone home to bed, locking the children inside to get on with their work. This story - the truth about what happened in the mill - has not been carved into the fine stone panels. This murder is as unrecorded now as it was on that dreadful night in 1818. Read the names of those eighteen children and then shed a tear.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Into The Void Part 6 : Escape

I can still remember the day of the Switch-On quite clearly and also the days that followed. Getting used to sounds again was a curious process. At first I was amazed by the sound of birds singing but then I became overwhelmed by the noise they made. Alexander discovered me sat in the garden a couple of days after Switch-On throwing pebbles at the apple tree in my attempt to scare the local bird population away. A few days later I had learned to partially "tune-out" the bird songs which was both a blessed relief for my sanity and, I am sure, an equally blessed relief for the birds. I became a regular visitor to my local car repair garage, taking my car back on at least two occasions during the first few weeks after Switch-On, convinced there was something seriously wrong with it. "What's the matter this time?" the car mechanic would ask in exasperation. "It's making the most awful noise", I would reply before been told patiently that that was the kind of noise all cars made.
Within a remarkably short period of time the "Minnie Mouse" effect began to fade and I no longer heard artificial mechanical voices but natural ones full of a host of different tones and rhythms. I became fascinated by accents : particularly the accents of people who I had met only after the deafness set in. When you are deaf you do give people "voices" but these tend to be devoid of the richness and variety of natural speech patterns and it was a delight to re-discover the many regional accents of Britain.
The most glorious re-discovery was undoubtedly music. When I had questioned people before the operation they had suggested that, if I were lucky, I might be able to follow music I had previously known. In such cases memory might fill in the gaps between the level of information the implant could handle : music was, after all, a very complex code of information. Within days I had started to experiment. With tremendous joy I discovered that I could follow - indeed I could enjoy - music, even music that was new to me. I went through a strange, accelerated learning process where - for the first time since my early teens - I became hooked on the latest pop songs that were doing the rounds. The simpler forms of such tunes were ideal to learn to cope with the more complicated structures of, what had always been my great love, jazz. Within a few weeks I felt able to test out my abilities by going to a live jazz gig at a local pub. I had not listened to live jazz since the Gerry Mulligan concert some fifteen years earlier. It was just a local band, nothing special. They played on the patio outside the pub. There were not that many people listening. Most people were talking or eating or reading the Sunday papers. But if you had looked carefully that day you would have seen a chap sat near the front crying his eyes out. Crying with joy at being reunited with music after so long an absence.
It is eleven years since Switch-On and several things have changed. Cochlear implants are no longer categorised as experimental and the funding problems I mentioned in my e-mails of the time have largely gone. The external parts of the implant system have improved in their design and size and the batteries, speech processor and transmitter are now so small they are hardly noticeable. But some things don't change. Every morning when I wake up I attach the implant and switch it on. I cough. And it is not until I hear that cough that I know things are alright. I know that for another day I will be able to hear.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Drive and electrics

As light relief from Ali's fabulous but (I find) still emotionally intense account of regaining his hearing....

(Which still thrills me as much as when I first heard it - hearing me for the first time he, of course, claimed he hadn't known Jane had married a Russian.... it was truly stunning following his implant to be able to simply sit and chat with him rather than have to grab pen and paper to thereby rather clumsily try to discuss anything remotely complex!)

MP (our development house) now - as in the photo - has a front "drive". Well, gravel parking for two cars, where the brick paving is on the left will soon (tomorrow) have a little front wall and a pedestrians' gate. And that's the front "garden" done. At the back, flowers are blooming and the lawns growing all-too fast. When we go along to paint and wire and build bathrooms and kitchens, we now park in style on "the gravel drive." It's seriously useful because the house is in a cul-de-sac and previously, parking in the road, we always had to go to the end to turn around - as Jane said "Now we'll never see the end of the road ever again."

Inside, downstairs, the mains sockets are now connected - as is the cooker supply (but the cooker itself - it's separate hob and oven, as are splashback and hood, sitting in boxes awaiting attention and constantly getting in the way - need built units to be fitted in.) The boiler awaits the gas man to commision it - water, radiators, bathroom, gas and electricity are ready and waiting but the kitchen sink needs... units to support it. If you foolishly wonder if the waiting pipes for the kitchen are OK and fiddle with the little valve, you get very wet. Just as if you wobble the valves waiting for the washing machine in the utility room trying to clean spilt the plaster off, it becomes a wet room without the tiles or drain. But it does settle the inevitable building dust a bit. Yes, I did that, of course.... I mean, knocked the valve merely intending to clean off plaster, forgetting the result would be a jet of high pressure water... - I've left the water pressure connected just in case time revealed any leaking joins. Actually modern push-fit plastic piping is rather like Ali's implant... very simply, it works. But I'm still constantly told cautionary tales it "won't really".

So, our development is all good stuff and at a guess we'll be ready for final inspections and setting up sale arrangements within about four weeks. This has been a long haul so it's a huge relief to see the end of the project in sight. Sadly, the fact is that we won't really be happy until we see money ching into our account to repay all the loans we had to arrange to cause all the good works.

Whether we end up with a profit is almost neither here nor there - that's all about the state of the housing market. It does seem likely that in fact we'll come out about even and there's even glimmerings we may do better. If it is evens, that's OK, that means an awful lot of money (after loans repaid) available for a next project. But definitely simpler. Or not. We have learnt so much from this project to do the SAME would not be anything like the same problem or cost.

I've debated my tail end comment forever. Ali's true story about his hearing is SO fabulous.. but I have my own story of debilitating illness where in 1979 something so fabulous happened I often want to tell the tale. Would anybody like to know?

Into The Void Part 5 : Switch-On

Switch-on was the unofficial title given to the day when the internal parts of the cochlear implant were activated by the external microphone and speech processor. For me, this took place on Thursday 30th April 1998 and what follows is the full text of the e-mail I circulated the following day. The photograph shows Isobel, a very young Alexander and Salim Khan the technician from the Implant Service.
The problem was I had no idea what to expect. My worst fear - one that has been gradually gathering momentum for the last few days - was that there would be nothing. My best hope was that I would once again be able to "hear" sound, and after a good few months of practice, I would begin to be able to translate it into something more meaningful.
There had been a competition running on the First Class Network over recent weeks to nominate a suitable "person" to perform the switch-on (Red Rum, the late Aintree racehorse received the most votes!). In fact the switch-on was performed by a computer (Joe and Andy please note it was an IBM not a MAC). The technical wizard explained that the first thing we would do is to switch on each of the 22 channels (each channel stimulates a different electrode) one by one. Keys were depressed and everyone watched the screen expectantly. I sat there with a dazed look on my face. rigid with fear. Nothing seemed to happen. More keys were depressed. I began to accept my worst fears as reality. Then, all of a sudden, I heard it. A tone - quite pleasant - hovering somewhere in my head. Fighting with the constant tinnitus at first. But this was Tyson at his best versus Bruno at his worst. No contest. The tinnitus quickly gave way.
I could hear again. A single tone. But what the hell, it was noise, it was working. The computer stepped up the strength of the signal until we found a good comfortable level and then we moved on to the next channel. Again, I could hear. My God, two frequencies! Channel followed channel. At the medium and high frequencies I have had no hearing for 13 years and the whole process was unbelievable. Such frequencies could not exist surely. Each time I felt that we had reached the limit of perceptual hearing, a higher frequency kicked in, until all 22 channels had been tested. All 22 worked.
At this point I would have been quite happy to have packed up and gone home. Just to hear those odd noises was quite enough. Why go further and spoil things. Salim (the technical wizard) gave me a card to read saying that he would now get the computer to switch on all the channels at once. This was "Switch In". The most extraordinary sensation passed through my brain. Salim said (to Isobel and Alex who were sat there) "Of course it will take some time to find the right settings". I said, "No these seem to be fine". Suddenly we all sat dumbstruck as we realised what had happened. I had heard him.
"Can you hear me" they were all saying at once. I was too shocked almost to answer. A voice - completely unrecognisable to me - answered "Yes". I had read about what the "sound" would sound like at first. Micky Mouse most people said. Near, but not quite. More Minnie Mouse on speed. I had - in my more optimistic moments - expected other people to sound like this, but what I had never realised was that I too would sound like that. But who cares. I could hear. I could bloody-well hear. Not perfect, not everything. If everyone spoke at once it confused me. If people spoke too fast I lost the thread. It all sounded strange. But I could sodding-well hear.
Later, Salim told us that it was very rare and only happened in about 1% of cases. Normally it takes months to reach the level I had managed in minutes. It was all quite unusual. Everyone was either grinning or crying. I was shaking. We spent a bit of time tuning the various settings and Salim explained all the bits of the various mechanisms (he had an Indian accent, how remarkable. I had forgotten people had accents). I listened to myself again and realised that I had picked up an American accent from somewhere. Good God, after fifteen years of silence I had come back with an American accent!
We took a break and I escaped outside to smoke my pipe (really to just try and come to terms with what had happened). Strange sounds all around me. A waterfall crept up behind me - no it was not a waterfall it was a car. A door squeaked somewhere - no it was a bird singing. I came back into the building and heard my footsteps on the concrete stairs. They echoed. That is not sound - raw sound - that is quality sound. I will never walk down a corridor again without thinking it is one of the most beautiful sounds on earth. To get back into the Cochlear Implant Centre there is one of those dreadful doors with a voice-box (the kind that had driven me mad for the last 15 years). I pressed the button and heard the mechanical buzz of the speaker. I asked to come in and heard the bolt shoot back.
We did more tests. Nobody could quite believe it. I certainly couldn't. Eventually we came home. More sounds - the noise of the car, the clicking of the indicator, the annoying sound the computer makes when a programme is activated. The sound of Alexander's voice. A dog barking.
A long-standing engagement last night took me off to a Malt Whisky tasting in Sheffield. The room was full - seventy or eight people - but I could pick up great chunks of what people said to me. When the woman from the Malt Whisky Society gave her talk I was able to follow parts of it. By the end of the evening I was drunk and unable to decide whether any of this was for real or not. This morning I woke up early and with some apprehension plugged the system in again. It still works. This is no dream.
It will take some time yet. My two objectives for the coming months are the telephone and music. All the books say that "eventually", with practice, you can begin to get a bit of these. Give me a week - or two.
I feel grateful to all sorts of people. To the technical expertise of those at the Yorkshire Cochlear Implant Centre. To all my friends for coping so well with my deafness for so long. To Isobel and Alexander for their encouragement and their belief. But perhaps most of all to the NHS (like me it is 50 this year) for enabling me to experience this. But there are still people waiting. Worse still, there are areas of the country which will not fund adult cochlear implants for financial reasons. No deaf person should ever be denied the pleasure I am experiencing just because we are unwilling to provide the financial resources necessary.
(Tomorrow, I will round this whole "Into The Void" theme off by bringing people up-to-date with what has happened over eleven years since that marvellous day in 1998).

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Buzz Words In Anger

(I had to wait five weeks for the switch-on of my cochlear implant so you can wait a few days for the next part of the story. In the meantime, a moan)
I know I am old not because I forget things or take more time doing the simplest of things. I know I am old not by the fact that when I have to bend down to tie my shoe-lace I try to think if there is anything else needs doing whilst I am down there. No, I know I am old because I have become ceaselessly grumpy. I cannot watch television without shouting words like "ridiculous" or "get a life". I cannot enjoy a quiet pint without wanting to pull the plug out of the adjacent music tv projector. I cannot walk the dog without wanting to write angry letters to the Council. If I send the letters they get me nowhere - there is probably a file with my name written on it - so today I will post my angry letter to the world instead.
Respected Sir,
You will be aware that several months ago a bevy of Council workers started fitting banners to the lamp-posts on the main roads leading into town. These banners are situated some thirty or forty feet above street level and therefore are almost impossible to see from a passing car. If examined in detail - with the aid of either a long step-ladder or a long focal length camera lens - they reveal messages such as "Summer Buzz in Libraries"
I would appreciate it if someone could explain to me what on earth is the point of these ridiculous pieces of plastic. I assume they cost a considerable amount of money. They convey no useful or indeed no literate message. As they don't advertise any third party service they obviously bring in no revenue. And they get in the way of the bloody sky!
Does nobody in the Town Hall sit down and work out whether the latest silly idea is of any worth or value. Does nobody try to calculate whether a scheme provides any value added to the poor citizens of the town such as myself. Has anyone ever tried to calculate whether such plastic monstrosities have ever caused one additional pair of feet to cross the threshold of the local library. What possible use are such things other than to a passing giraffe?
Yours, in exasperation,
A Burnett, Council Tax Payer from Fixby.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Into The Void Part 4 : Into My Head

Back in 1997, when I decided to go ahead and have a cochlear implant the procedure was still relatively new and was classed by the NHS as an "experimental procedure". This meant that it did not receive automatic funding and each local Health Authority had to decide how many such procedures they should fund each year. In July 1997 I received a letter from the Yorkshire Cochlear Implant Service saying that they had been told by my local Health Authority that they could not fund any more operation during the current year and therefore I would have to wait before I could be operated on. The disappointment served as a harsh reminder that, at the time, NHS waiting lists were nothing more than a disguised form of rationing. The situation has improved considerably since - and cochlear implants have now been re-classified out of the "experimental treatment" category - but eternal vigilance is required to ensure that we never slip back into a similar situation again.
By the following February, new finance had become available. At the time I was circulating a record of my attempts to escape deafness to a network of friends via e-mail (a very early type of Blog I suppose). I still have some of the posts, here is the one from Thursday 5th February 1998.
"The fax came today. It came whilst I was out of the room. I eventually found it sandwiched between two European Union press releases about structural funds or set-aside rates or some such things. "We have heard verbally ..... funding now available .... operate on the 11th March". It had a strange effect. Good news, yes, but no joy, not the kind of wild abandon you feel when you get a letter saying you have got a job, won the lottery, or whatever. Nevertheless, a feeling that it changes things, starts a new chapter, sets a new perspective. Five weeks. Five weeks and they will open me up, insert wires, microchips, God knows what else, and the scenery will change.
The prospect of a changed landscape leaves me slightly disorientated, unable to slot thoughts into rational boxes. So I go for a few beers in the hope that this mist will have cleared tomorrow. In the pub, the clock over the bar is perpetually stilled - stalled forever at ten minutes past closing time. My hearing stalled in 1984. Can it be restarted? Who knows."
As things turned out, I didn't have the operation on the 11th March. A slight infection delayed things and it wasn't until the 25th March that I was wheeled into the operating theatre, already slightly spaced-out from the effects of some pre-operative happy pill. The surgeon - a delightful man called Chris Raines - told me there would be a slight delay as the anaesthetist had got lost but not to worry as we could usefully spend the time sketching out the design of the Implant Services' website which I had volunteered to put together for them. So there I lay, on a table, wearing an operating gown, discussing html boxes and embedded images, wondering whether it was some kind of dream or not.
Returning to my e-mail posts, the one for the 25th March includes the following:
"I vaguely recall regaining consciousness. Isobel was in the room along with Chris Raines. They were looking at photographs and laughing. I tried to ask what day it was but somehow couldn't manage it. I tried to work out why on earth they should be looking at photographs but before I could find an answer I fell into unconsciousness again"
Later I discovered that the photographs they were looking at were a series of Polaroids of the inside of my head which had been taken during the operation (a rather poor quality copy of one of them is attached to this post). After a couple of days I was strong enough to be allowed home wearing a magnificent head bandage which made me look rather like Basil Fawlty in one of the episodes of Fawlty Towers. The operation had fitted the internal parts of the implant. There would now be a wait of five weeks - to allow the post-operative swelling to fade - before they issued me with the external parts of the system and performed the great switch-on. I was left with a sore head, horrendous tinnitus, and the most harrowing five week wait I had ever had to experience.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Theme Thursday : Three Shoes

It's Theme Thursday again and this week the theme is "shoe". In working out how to interpret the theme I came up with three ideas but couldn't decide between them. So I have finished up with three shoes all walking in different directions! Story of my life really.
Shoe 1 : Cordwainers
If you search through the lists of London Livery Companies you will not find any cobblers. Nor will you find any bootmakers or shoe repairers. You will find worshipful companies of apothecaries, blacksmiths, carpenters and fishmongers. You will even find fan makers, bowyers, girdlers and skinners. So what have feet done wrong? Do feet smell too much to have a guild and a guildhall? Do the pewterers, plumbers and patternmakers refuse to sit down with a trade that is more at home in the gutter, or at least on the neighbouring pavement?
The answer is more prosaic : you are simply looking for the wrong trade. You should be searching for the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers. According to the splendid little website of the Cordwainers' Company, the word ‘cordwainer’ comes from the ancient Spanish leather centre of Cordoba where the Arabs used an alum dressing process on goatskin to produce a fine white leather that became known as ‘cordovan’ or ‘cordwain’. So the chap who makes your shoes is not a cobbler. The kids who sew your trainers in far off China are not shoemakers. They are all cordwainers. You do discover some interesting things on Theme Thursday don't you!
Shoe 2 : The Shoe Store
One of the most difficult things about shoes is storing the blasted things. If your house is anything like ours, the floors tend to be littered with stray shoes, sometimes in pairs, sometimes divorced from their "sole-mate". Occasionally they will get gathered up and thrown into a cupboard or hidden below the staircase. But then you can't find your best leather brogues or your trusty comfy trainers. What is needed is a shoe storage system : a filing cabinet for the feet.
I was having these strange thoughts the other day when all of a sudden I spotted an advert in the back of the Guardian Magazine. Available from a firm called Tszuji which, believe it or not, specialises in shoe storage solutions, the Shoe Wheel "spins free from the traditional shoe rack" and provides an "ingeniously designed mobile shoe storage unit". I immediately desired one but was slightly put off by the price (£65!). However, if my wife ever gets around to reading this perhaps she could make a note as there are now only 156 shopping days until Christmas.
Shoe 3 : Walkin' Shoes
I have to confess that the first thing that came to mind when I saw the theme for this week was Gerry Mulligan's recording of the tune "Walking Shoes". There is an excellent clip of Mulligan, Zoot Sims and Bob Brookmeyer playing it at a concert in Rome in 1956. As I try to walk away in my three different shoes in three different directions, I will leave you with Gerry Mulligan and the rest doing the same thing much more stylishly.
See how other bloggers have dealt with this week's theme by following these links.

Into The Void Part 3 : Experimentation

My period of deafness lasted for about twelve years. For the latter period I was completely deaf, but before that there were nine or ten years when I had a small amount of residual hearing. For much of the time this simply allowed me to hear myself : but that was by far the most important ability. It is not too difficult to live without hearing others, it is pretty awful when you can't hear yourself. Your confidence in what you are saying - or what you imagine you are saying - begins to diminish, and slowly your speech takes on a flat and monotonal rhythm. During those years my search for the smallest possible improvement in my ability to hear was driven more by the need to keep hearing myself than the need to hear others. For me, speaking was more important than hearing which possibly says something about the condition of the human psyche or, in my case, suggests an inflated view of my own self-importance.
My search for the smallest possible improvement led me down some weird and wonderful paths. Tiring of the limitations of hearing aids - particularly in crowded places like pub tap-rooms - I discovered that the local audiology clinic still had a stock of ear trumpets which had lain unused in a storage cupboard for a generation or more. The expendable type with a long sound tube was perfect for an evening in the pub and I enthusiastically arranged to borrow one. I was never able to properly evaluate it as all of my friends refused to sit at the same table as me when I appeared with it. On another occasion I was introduced to a research team working at the local University which had been developing a new "sound awareness" device for people with little or no hearing. It was intended to make users aware of environmental noises such as door bells ringing, kettles boiling or telephones ringing. It was in the form of a kind of chunky wrist-watch which you strapped to your wrist. A microphone picked up sounds and generated small electric shocks which were supposed to create a tingling sensation in your wrist. I was given a prototype for a week to evaluate it. Either I was particularly sensitive to electric shocks or the sensitivity gauge had been set far too high : the result was that the slightest sound would send a wave of pain shooting up to my elbow. My arm would be forced into an involuntary spasm which gave the impression that I was giving a Nazi salute. People's natural reaction to such a performance by someone in their company was to break into nervous laughter. And of course the more they laughed the stronger the shock. Within no time at all I was running around like a maniac trying to turn the blasted thing off as my friends became convulsed with laughter.
I had endless tests to try and work out what was happening to my hearing. These involved everything from being spun in a chair whilst been made to count downwards from 100 in threes to having to drink large quantities of some gelatinous substance whilst lying perfectly still for eight hours. The nearest I ever got to a diagnosis was when a Consultant ENT surgeon came to my hospital bed one day and said that they now knew what I was suffering from - it was Burnett's Syndrome (he had managed to get a letter to the Lancet published about my case and suggested that the group of symptoms should be named after me).
The trumpets, shocks, pills and potions were, in reality, nothing more than diversions. The real scientific hope lay in the work being done on cochlear implants. A cochlear implant is an electronic device which artificially stimulates the cochlear thus producing the sensation of sound. It is made up of two parts : a surgically implanted internal system made up of a set of electrodes connected to the auditory nerves inside the cochlear, and an external microphone and speech processor. Sound is picked up by the microphone, turned into electrical impulses by the processor, transmitted via an inductive coupler to a receiver which has been implanted beneath the skin of the skull. The electronic pulses stimulate the auditory nerve giving an impression of sound. When I first went deaf implants were still in their very early stage of development and they were only able to give an awareness of noise or no noise. At this stage I still had some residual hearing and therefore this early generation of implants offered no improvement on what I had. But as the 1980s turned into the 1990s two things were happening. My residual hearing was slowly vanishing and reaching the point where anything was better than what I had. Secondly implant research and technological development was advancing at a pace which made you proud to be a human being.
I had the various tests to determine whether I was suitable for an implant. I went on the waiting list to have the operation. I nervously waited to see if my life was about to change.
I will take a day off for Theme Thursday tomorrow but return with the final part (or maybe parts) of the story later in the week.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Into The Void : Part 2 The Void

Despite what I thought that day when I turned the car around and set off home, deafness did not fall like a heavy velvet curtain, suddenly and hopelessly : it was a more pernicious process than that. Like a grey muslin veil, it fell slowly. During the first few months I had my residual hearing levels measured daily as the doctors tried to work out what was happening. I became fixated with my own audiograms as I translated each minor variation into either hope or fear. I worked my way through a succession of ever more powerful hearing aids as I tried to cling on to my ability to hear : to hear music, to hear speech, to hear doors bang and to hear bells ring. With what little hearing I had left I tried to make sense of the range of signals I was getting. Some of them were noises, some of them were sights : if you worked hard you might be able to work out what was going on, but by then things had probably moved on and you were left exhausted by the effort. Being deaf is like reading half a script, in a foreign language, whilst you are drunk.
I tried alternative approaches. I went to lip-reading classes and I don't think I have ever hated anything so much in my life. I would sit there watching exaggerated lip movements feeling confused and excluded. The experience was not helped by the fact that I became convinced that the teacher - a delightful and respectable middle-aged lady - was mouthing sentences that verged on the pornographic. The shock on the faces of my classmates (all rather refined elderly ladies) when I would hazard a guess at the sentence in question soon persuaded my to keep my interpretations to myself. I tried sign language but I was as bad at that as I was at lip-reading. Despite a term of lessons I only ever learnt one word in sign-language : and there is a limit on the number of conversations you can have using the word "sausages".
During these years as I travelled into the void I kept my spirits up by putting together a list - a list which started out life as "ten good reasons for being deaf". Number 1 was "I will never have to listen to Margaret Thatcher speak again" and number 2 was "I will never hear "The Birdie Song" again. Eventually the list grew and eventually became "54 good reasons for being deaf". But what really kept me going were two things. Firstly, I felt sure that deafness was a disability which could, at some stage, be ameliorated by scientific and technological developments. This was the early period of computer-based communications and I embraced it with enthusiasm. The written word was the currency in this new computerised world and it was a currency I had equal access to. Also, pioneering research was being undertaken into ways of creating "sound" using electronic stimulation of the cochlear - the very first cochlear implants were being developed.
The other thing that kept me going was the support of friends and family. My wife Isobel was tirelessly patient, endlessly comforting and ceaselessly active in her attempts to try and find medical solutions to my problem. My son Alexander, born during this period of deafness, refused to acknowledge that there could be any barrier to our communication and within months had developed a series of strategies for attracting my attention and getting whatever he required. My friends wrote things down in a series of "hearing books" I would carry around with me. Two good friends developed a unique sign-language based entirely on puns : a language we would use as we sat in the pub of an evening to the bewilderment of neighbouring drinkers. I know I have called this phase of my deafness "the void", but it cannot be a void when it is filled with such loving and supportive people.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Into The Void

Following my blogpost the other day where I described hearing Gerry Mulligan play just a few months before my deafness descended, a number of people have asked about that phase in my life : what it was like to lose my hearing and what it was like - after being fitted with a cochlear implant - to "hear" again. I will try and describe my own experiences of both stepping into the void of deafness and escaping from it again.
When the deafness came some twenty-five years ago, it was neither sudden nor unexpected. I had been deaf in one ear for as long as I could remember. It wasn't discovered until I was about nine years old and I remember being fairly surprised about the diagnosis. I had always assumed that everyone could only hear with one ear (we only have one nose after all) and that the other one - in my case the left one - was some vestigial organ which had been left there for balance. It is relatively easy to adapt to being deaf in one ear - as long as you always position yourself in the right place and keep people you want to hear to your "good" side and people you want to ignore to your "bad" side, life can go on without too much trouble. And so it did for the next twenty or so years.
Things began to change when I was in my mid-thirties. What had been a static condition suddenly became active and the auditory symptoms began to affect my life in a number of ways, some of them quite bizarre. I developed tinnitus (noises in the ear unrelated to any external stimulus). At first I refused to believe that these were not "real sounds". We were living in Sheffield at the time and one night I was kept awake by the sound of the forging hammers at the steelworks down in the valley. I had started to write a letter of complaint to the Council when Isobel told me that she couldn't hear the noises and what is more the steelworks had closed down the year before. I had periods when I had acute frequency distortions : an ability to hear noises at one frequency (in my case, low) whilst not being able to hear noises at a higher frequency. I remember driving home from work one day listening to a play on the radio. It was one of those annoying "modern" plays that was made up of a series of disjointed soliloquies by a loan male actor. Or so I thought. It turned out to be a completely normal little kitchen sink drama, it was just that I could not hear the female character.
I turned to the doctors to try and understand what was happening. I was fairly lucky, Isobel was a junior doctor at the time, and there was no shortage of people to prod and poke me in order to try and give me a diagnosis. But nobody knew. The various symptoms would come and go and vary in severity. Each day I would awake with a degree of trepidation not knowing what I would, or wouldn't hear. One Christmas we went away on holiday. My brother lived in the British Virgin Islands and was about to get married and I was to be the Best Man. We flew out to the Caribbean taking a route that minimised the cost but seemed to maximise the inconvenience, changing planes at least four times. During the holiday the variations, distortions and deafnesses seemed to peak and I put it down to the heat and the humidity. We flew home in the new year and I prepared to return to work the following day. On the Monday morning when I awoke I couldn't hear anything, but I had suffered from short periods of deafness before, it was almost as though it took my ear time to wake up some mornings. Driving to work I kept checking : turning the radio and cassette player on to check whether I could hear. After driving for nearly an hour without even being able to hear the car engine I pulled over off the road. I realised that this time was different, this time it would not click back. I turned the car around and went home. I had gone deaf.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Mulligan Memories

I have been listening to a recently re-released Gerry Mulligan CD called "The Jazz Soundtracks". It features Mulligan - along with several other excellent jazz musicians - playing the original soundtrack to two movies : I Want To Live (1958) where the music was composed by Johnny Mandel, and The Subterraneans (1959) with compositions by Andre Previn. However you classify this kind of jazz - cool jazz, west coast jazz, post-bop or whatever -it has always been my favourite style. And Mulligan has always been one of my favourite players.
I once heard him play. It was at Sheffield City Hall and it was back in the early 1980s. It was just before my deafness descended and it must have been the last concert I ever heard before those years of silence. By then Mulligan was old and that spark which lit up his early work had diminished (but not been totally extinguished). I saw the Sheffield gig advertised but couldn't find anyone to go with: none of my friends were into jazz. So I went by myself, sat up in the Gods and let the music work its magic on what was left of my natural hearing. It was a glorious experience, one I remembered during the years of deafness that followed.
Mulligan died before I received my cochlear implant and my ability to listen to music was returned to me. But I can listen to his music now and remember just what scientific research, the National Health Service and a collection of skilled and dedicated doctors and technicians have done for me.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Raisins Amongst The Bran Flakes

I thought I might introduce the occasional photograph which catches my eye in order to provide a bit of variety and to give people a break from my endless sagas : a sporadic raisin amongst the bran flakes. I am starting with this picture of George Bernard Shaw which must have been taken back in the 1930s. Two things are worthy of note. First, I never realised that Shaw was such a tall person : he seems as though he dwarfs those around him physically as well as intellectually. Secondly, I love his hat. I have quite a collection of hats myself - they are very useful in shielding my cochlear implant from the frequent rain of West Yorkshire - but I don't have one quite as splendid as this specimen. I feel a trip to eBay coming on.

It's The Old War Of The Roses Thing

Following yesterday's blogpost, Willow asked whether I had inherited Uncle Harry's "sweet tenor voice"? As anyone who has ever had the misfortune of hearing me sing will know, the answer is "no". But as I suggested in a post last week, I may have inherited a burial plot from him, or at least from his father, Abraham Moore. On Monday I drove over to Bradford to see if I could find grave E988 in Bowling Cemetery and, despite it being a vast acreage of stone monuments, I eventually tracked it down to a pleasant path-side location commanding fine views over Bradford city centre (it is the second plot from the left in the photograph above). And the good news was that there was only Alice and Abraham - Uncle H's mother and father - in there. What little I know about cemeteries and grave plots tells me that this means there is still unused space (I believe you can get about six decent-sized coffins to a plot but I am sure someone will correct me if I am wrong).
When Isobel got home from work that night I enthusiastically described my adventures and told her about the possibility of unused space, hinting that she may like to accompany me to the cemetery on her next day off. I was anxious to ensure that she was fully behind the scheme before I got too involved in a fight with Bradford Council in order to try and establish my legal title to the plot. Sad to relate, she was rather troublesome and uncooperative about my jolly scheme, raising objection after objection. "We had never met Abraham and Alice and were only vaguely related to them by marriage". I felt sure they were charming people, I countered, and we would have loads of time to get better acquainted. She was "intent on leaving her body to medical science and therefore there would be nothing left to bury". As far as I understood the bodies for medical research process, I responded, you got a bag full of bits back at the end of the day. "There was supposed to be a family plot in Liverpool and that would be a more suitable location, if location there had to be."
At last we had got to it : the real reason for her reluctance. It was the old War of the Roses thing. Isobel's mother's family came from Liverpool (which despite what local government reorganisation may say is, and has always been, part of Lancashire) whereas my family all come from Bradford (which is undoubtedly part of Yorkshire). As the argument escalated, I let it be known that I knew what was behind her opposition to Abraham Moore's grave space. "You just want us to be buried in that Usher grave in Liverpool", I said, "and I can tell you now, I wouldn't be seen dead in it".
The argument continues, the matter of our final resting place is still an open question.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rambling Onto The Stage

Over the last couple of weeks I have been illustrating the sport of Internet Rambling - fecklessly wandering from one website to another driven only by curiosity and a desire to waste time in the most entertaining way possible. The last installment saw me finish up on the stage of Ford's Theatre, Washington back in April 1865. The rules of Internet Rambling state that you can go off at a tangent at any time : indeed tangential thinking is encouraged. So I stick with the stage (which is useful as it is Theme Thursday and this week the theme is "Stage") and I jump to the stage of the Rusholme Pavillion in Manchester, England, in June 1931.
"The Stage" is the weekly trade newspaper of the British entertainment and performing arts industry. Established in 1880, the Stage has chronicled the changing tastes and mores of the entertainment industry for more than 120 years, and its' archives - of over 6,500 issues and 170,000+ pages - are available on-line and provide a treasure trove of material. The one problem is - like all good shows - you have to pay to get in. I normally shun pay sites - there is enough free material out there to keep the most enthusiastic Internet Rambler occupied - but I made an exception with The Stage as I was searching for material on my Uncle Harry.
Uncle Harry was the black sheep of our family. He got drunk, died his hair, wore built-up shoes and played the piano at Working Men's Clubs. In his younger days he had run away from a respectable working-class home in Bradford and joined a Pierrot troupe which performed in second-rate English theatres and seaside holiday resorts. I did have a copy of a playbill featuring the troupe (the Silhouettes) but I was anxious to find out whether their performances had ever been mentioned in The Stage. So I paid the £5 fee which let me into the archives and went in search of the legacy of Uncle Harry.
I eventually struck gold with the issue of the 4th June 1931. There, on page 13, was a short review of a performance by the Silhouettes at the Rusholme Pavilion. Finding the sentence : "and Harry Moore adds to the musical side as an efficient accompanist, but with a sweet tenor voice", was like locating the Holy Grail and put a skip in my step as I rambled through The Stage archives. You could spend a week doing nothing more than browsing through reviews of everything from performing dogs to the early concerts of the Beatles. But the rules of Rambling require that you can't stay in one place for too long. So, leaving The Stage behind, I set out in search of new cyber backwaters, ready to dip my toes in the brackish waters of on-line trivia.

Joined up planning and flood risks

A picture of Meadow Prospect (MP) - our development house - in case anybody had forgotten it.

However, this post is about its flood risk ratings. We bought MP at the end of 2006, when it had a flood-risk rating of 1 in 1000.

By June 2007 the rating had changed to 1 in 100. As a result, our first set of plans were rejected, causing huge delays.

We've just had a leaflet inviting us to check the re-drawn flooding map. MP now has ZERO flood-risk rating. I guess somebody noticed it (well, the whole close) stood proud in the huge floods of July 2007. Or not, who knows.

Such joined-up planning, whatever next....

Fluff At The Bottom Of The Drawer Of The Mind

There is always a temptation when blogging to go in search of the great themes or develop coherent arguments. Whilst I have done my share of dialectical discourse in the past - who can forget my investigative work on lamp-posts or my sortie into the secret world of the International Brotherhood of Knot Tyers - on occasions all I want to do is to chat about the unimportant things that are happening in my life. This is one such time. The following topics are nothing more than a meaningless miscellany : the fluff which congregates at the bottom of the drawer of the mind.
Picture Book
I seem to have spend a lot of time recently putting together the pictures I took - and the blogs I wrote but never posted - whilst on holiday. I decided to produce - solely for my own amusement - a book containing both and I put one together using the excellent services provided by Lulu. Although the process is comparatively simple - and extraordinarily cheap - I am already on the third edition. Isobel didn't like some of the photographs of herself in the first edition and went wild when I told her they were available on the Internet, and the printing of the second edition was a bit short of glue and tended to come apart when robustly handled. The third edition is a stout hardback. I finished it last night and I have ordered a copy - I will report back when I receive it.
Real Letters
Yesterday I received a letter! It came through the letterbox in an envelope and was handwritten on paper. I mention this because it is such a rare event these days. It was from my niece Di who lives in the British Virgin Islands and was even more welcome because it brought family news and was surrounded by colourful and exotic stamps. Whilst I bemoan the loss of the gentle art of letter-writing I am as guilty as the next man for its demise. Many years ago, me and my good mate Dave Hornby decided to rekindle the habit by exchanging a weekly hand-written letter. We both rushed out and bought the finest vellum paper and invested in new pens. All I wanted was a silk smoking jacket to wear when I wrote the letter, all Dave wanted was an antique writing desk. We never got them. We never wrote.
Clouds Got In The Way
I was listening to the radio the other day and I came across a piece about the Cloud Appreciation Society. This is an organisation which is devoted to both the study of, and the promotion of, clouds as things of beauty. They have a manifesto which sets out their beliefs which includes such things as:
- We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.
- We think that they are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.
- We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.
This is my kind of organisation and I immediately sent off for a copy of the Cloud Collector's Handbook. This wonderful book contains a complete lists of the many hundreds of types of different clouds and provides you with an opportunity to record sightings of them. I can't wait until it arrives.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Rambling With Bill Clinton To The Theatre

So where did I get to? You will recall (if you haven't anything better to do) that I was illustrating the sport of Internet rambling - aimlessly drifting around the Internet following a series of semi-random links. So far the trail had taken me from a gramophone via Cicely Courtneidge, Van Gogh's "The Mousmé", the Clarion Newspaper, and Walter Crane, to the Project Gutenberg Library where you left me reading ST Snow's riveting account of his 50 years as an accountant. So now read on.....
With the best will in the world I soon got bored with Mr Snow - brass founding and accountancy make a soporific cocktail - and in the best traditions of Internet rambling I began to browse through the collection of thousands of free books available from the site. For no particular reason, my attention eventually focused on G K Chesterton's 1922 book "What I Saw In America". I have always had my doubts about Chesterton : his politics stunk and his religious views were a trifle suffocating. However, I read his thoughts on his lecture tour of the USA with growing interest. Let me just quote a couple of sentences from the chapter entitled "Presidents and Problems".
"All good Americans wish to fight the representatives they have chosen. All good Englishmen wish to forget the representatives they have chosen. This difference, deep and perhaps ineradicable in the temperaments of the two peoples, explains a thousand things in their literature and their laws. The American national poet praised his people for their readiness 'to rise against the never-ending audacity of elected persons.' The English national anthem is content to say heartily, but almost hastily, 'Confound their politics' "
I am always slightly suspicious of exercises in blanket analysis - "the difference between the British and Americans is ...", "men are from Mars, women are from Heckmondwyke", that kind of thing - but I was intrigued by the claim that "all good Americans" wish to fight the representatives they have chosen. It dovetailed into something I heard on American radio news the other day: the claim that the Obama Honeymoon was already drawing to a close. So I went rambling in search of some evidence.
The above graph comes from the Wall Street Journal website and seems to give support for the Chesterton Theory : after electing Presidents there is nothing Americans like to do more than to fight them. There are, however, some notable exceptions to the prevailing shape of the support curve : notably the trend in support for President William J Clinton. What was Clinton doing that the other Presidents were not. Before choosing the obvious and the salacious answer I decided to go rambling through the William J Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. Initially, this was a somewhat disappointing adventure : the Museum authorites seemed to want me to pay $5 to look around and - even worse - travel to Arkansas to do so (I have nothing against Arkansas, it's just a long way). I tried taking the virtual tour of the Museum but the camera angle kept swinging wildly, making me feel somewhat seasick. Even if you follow the "Research" link you mainly get either lists of documents which are stored in the library or photographs you can download at $5 a time. You can download the President's Daily Schedules for all his eight years' of office but who wants to do that when there is interesting stuff like paint to watch drying.
In search of something interesting, I switched Presidents and called in on the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project. This is much more like it : there are buttons to press, movies to watch and songs you can download and sing along with. I was particularly fond of one called "King Alcohol" which will in future be an integral part of my repertoire when staggering back from the pub quiz on a Friday night. Perhaps you would like to join me in singing the chorus:
King Alcohol has had his day
His kingdom's crumbling fast
His votaries are heard to say
Our tumbling days are past.
I rambled on to the official Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Museum and Foundation, a more sober destination and again one which seeks to sell you tickets rather than provide you with information. To get your hands on the source information you need to visit the collection of the Complete Abraham Lincoln Papers which are stored at the Library of Congress. You could wander through this collection for weeks or months : it is absolutely fascinating. I found myself reading a copy of the letter from James S Knox to his father. Knox and decided to go to Ford's Theatre on the night of the 14th April 1865 and there he witnessed the assassination of President Lincoln. The letter tells of the event with some force and feeling and you can easily imagine yourself with Knox as he jumps onto the stage in pursuit of John Wilkes Booth. And it is on the stage at Ford's Theatre that my ramble must end for today. But I will resume and conclude the adventure on Thursday.