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

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle