Ears are strange things. Photo: Getty
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Suzanne Moore: I clipped the hair from pensioners’ ears and prepared to insert the pink goo

How I became a Trainee Audiology Technician. In an actual hospital. I wore a white coat and everything.

When I was on the lovely dole at 16 my mother insisted I got a job. She never cared that I barely went to school but she had some insane idea that I should work. Years later I realised this was something to do with being working class. At the time I thought she was just being a cow.

This is how I became a Trainee Audiology Technician. In an actual hospital. I wore a white coat and everything.

Even now, it’s something I struggle to explain. It never entered my head I would get the job, though I did have loads of science O-levels because my school was a sort of Govian paradise. Only stupid girls did things like English or art.

So there I was in a hospital, having to mend people’s hearing aids.

“I’m getting Radio Caroline, doctor,” some old biddy would say to me. They were not only deaf but gaga if they thought I was a doctor, I reckoned, so I would twerk around with a soldering iron and tell them it was all fine.

The serious part was doing hearing tests, playing different frequencies while they flashed lights if they could hear and I plotted some sort of graph.

Hearing tests can flag up brain tumours. As I made pretty patterns on the graph paper, I only hoped that there would be some other kind of medical indication. Anyway my boss said a lot of it was fake deafness. “It’s all for insurance claims,” he said mysteriously.

A lot of people, especially the old ones, did seem quite deaf as they shouted at me in my white coat.

A better person than me might have enjoyed such a level of responsibility. I merely thought it was better than working in a shop.

The worst thing was having to make ear moulds for the hearing aids. A liquid and a powder had to be made into a pink paste as the patient lay down. Revoltingly, I had to clip the hairs out of their inner ear. You stuck in the paste and moulded it: the trick was to get it out in seven minutes as it heated up and set.

“Try, if you can, not to burn them, Suzanne,” my boss Mr Dryhurst would say.

I didn’t know if he knew that I’d met his son at a Gong gig, where we engaged in lengthy snogging, but certainly he tolerated my utter incompetence with resignation.

One day an old Suffolk boy eyed me up and down with incredulity as I explained the procedure. “The likes of you are not putting that in the likes of me.”

I mixed up the goo and stuck it in his ear, nervously.

Thirty seconds later he was wailing, “Miss! Miss, it’s coming out of the other ear.”

I started screaming. “Mr Dryhurst, I’ve stuck it right through his skull!”

Mr Dryhurst rushed in. “Do not alarm the waiting room,” he said. “Ears are funny things. All sorts of strange sensations can be felt.”

“In one ear and out the other?”

“Indeed.”

What a great boss. I’ve never worn a white coat again, nor been treated with such respect. The NHS is truly a wonderful thing.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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