Being a music critic demands one skill above most: being able to listen to and understand music. But what happens when you are faced with the double tragedy of not being able to hear music the way you once did and it causing you actual physical pain.
Nick Coleman has been a music critic for over 25 years and is forced to deal with this exact problem due to neurosensory hearing loss, a condition which has a devastating effect. The way Coleman explained his first couple of days after the illness hit is terrifying. His description of the frustration of being stuck in bed unable to move and not knowing exactly what was wrong but with a constant ringing in his ears that alarmed him that something was very wrong makes the most calm person feel anxious.
He spoke at Wigtown Book Festival where he promoted his book The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss. You might think that the event would be a bit of sob story but it was actually the opposite. Any music lover hearing him talk will learn to appreciate music on a whole new level and anyone who suffers from any medical ailment will find his strength inspiring.
“Am I going to get it back?” I asked, repeatedly, trying not to be a bore. “My hearing is my most important sense. Well, to me it is. I need both ears for work. Music is my greatest passion in life. I do it a bit, too. I’d rather lose an eye, a foot…”
One of his first difficulties after being diagnosed was to go to see his team Arsenal play. He described the aftermath of this challenge as feeling the highest he has ever been legally due to the happiness he felt at having began his journey towards living with this illness.
He also talked about how his relationship with music has changed. The use of the word relationship could not be more appropriate. When music is such an intrinsic part of you it does become like a friendship. If you’ve had a bad day you stick your favourite record on. If you’re feeling sad you stick on a song that you can relate to so you no longer feel so alone.
His perception of himself and who he is changed so profoundly that everything felt different. Anyone who has suffered from either a physical or mental illness will relate to the book on this level; for these are events that can either make or break you as a person but Coleman’s courage in pulling himself out of the darkness is palpable.
He spoke about how he has to use his memory to listen to music since physically was no longer an option. It’s your brain that makes music meaningful and therefore it is possible to ‘listen’ to music without actually hearing it. We have all had days whereby you have a song sticks in your head – nine out of ten times it’s one you don’t actually like. When you apply this to a song that you have a deep emotional relationship with it can be very moving.
Nick Coleman’s ability to tolerate music has improved and he reviews folk music for The Independent on Sunday as this is the music that he finds the easiest to listen to and understand. He described his job as “Laura Ashley skirts and acoustic guitars”. He feels Amy Winehouse is one of the greatest singers the UK has ever produced and that every piece of music has the potential to be good.
The Train in the Night is a must read for anyone who loves music or needs some inspiration in their lives.