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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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage