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27 October 2021

I am currently deaf. Is this it from now on, I wonder, one thing failing after another?

About the only upside that I can see is that I can’t hear various right-wing politicians, not to mention their dog whistles, so well.

By Nicholas Lezard

I have had, all things considered, a fairly good run health-wise, when you think about what I put into my body, and at my age, too. There are friends of mine whose backs are going, whose sight is going, whose digestion is going. One friend about my age is suffering from rosacea, whose effect on his complexion he describes, rather wonderfully, as “like cherries jostling up in a clafoutis”. The condition comes with many grievous Thou Shalt Nots: drink neither alcohol nor hot drinks, especially anything containing caffeine; eat neither cheese nor spicy food; do no vigorous exercise. I worked out a long time ago that a life without vigorous exercise is a life I find perfectly acceptable; but one without tea, or wine, or cheese, or curry is, as George Santayana said of a life without happiness, a mad and lamentable experiment.

So I can consider myself fortunate in the distribution of genes. My mother is (redacted) years old, and apart from a refusal to believe that no one uses cheques any more, or that there are other news providers than the BBC, is still doing rather well. And, if it is not an act of lese-majesty to say so, she is looking in much better nick than – to pick a random public figure who may or may not be roughly the same age as her – the Queen.

However, the latest affliction to strike me takes me back to my childhood. I had a bath the other day, as a special treat, and after dunking my head to wash my hair, I found that I had gone deaf in one ear. For some reason this was always happening to me as a child, and now here the sensation is again. Frankly, if I was going to be reminded of my earliest days on the planet, I’d rather have a madeleine soaked in tea (although strictly speaking, if I was going to recall my temps perdu,it would probably have to involve most of a packet of Refreshers).

Like almost everything else, bath-induced deafness is much worse as an adult. Back then, I thought it was part of the natural order of things. Now, it seems like an outrage. And it’s not like the onset of a certain type of diabetes, or most lung cancers, or cirrhosis, which can be and very often are down to one’s lifestyle choices. Tell me, someone, what have I done wrong this time?

[see also: A year in my flat – and I marked it by setting off the smoke alarm]

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It is actually quite fantastically irritating. There are obvious medical reasons why it makes you feel unbalanced, I suppose, but the imbalance isn’t just about suddenly feeling less than confident about walking down a steep, wet pavement; it’s that one’s whole life feels out of kilter. My internal spirit level is so finely tuned that I can’t even bear it if one of my feet walks on the bobbled surface next to a street crossing and the other one doesn’t; but being deaf in one ear is a continuous insult to an inner sense of order.

Do you remember a few weeks ago when I said I couldn’t lie on my right side because of the pain on that side of my chest? Since that went away, I have been living the life of Riley by lying on my right side as if it were going out of style. Those glory days are over. If I put my right ear against the pillow I can hardly hear a damn thing at all. Well, I thought, it could be worse: I could be deaf in both ears. Guess what happened when I had another bath a week later.

A refinement has been added to my discomfort: rather acute pain. It kept me up a lot last night – drinking has little analgesic effect – and the reason my copy was delivered slightly late this week is that I decided to zonk myself with codeine and paracetamol, which made me all woozy and unable to marshal my fascinating thoughts for a while.

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Being almost deaf is no fun. About the only upside that I can see is that I can’t hear various right-wing politicians, not to mention their dog whistles, so well. Apart from that it’s a real drag, man. The phone rings and if I put it to my left ear all I hear is a faint buzzing, as if a weak and tiny bee is trapped in the mechanism. I can hear better with the right ear but touching it hurts. And it all makes me wonder what else is in store. There’s an American metaphor I heard about health: once the transmission goes, the whole car goes. Is this it, until the end of my days, one damn thing failing after another? The GP surgery rings me up to invite me to make an appointment for my chronic obstructive pulmonary disease review. I think of saying, “No, all’s fine, thanks” but then I remember my time in A&E last month with my chest and that I have to use a steroid inhaler every couple of days or so.

Still, things could be a lot worse. Time is doing its thing with me as it does with everyone, but I can’t honestly say it’s gone to town just yet. I met a new friend the other day, and saw my children, and all these people are much younger than I am, but they did not recoil in disgust, or burst into tears, or offer to help me cross the road. Couldn’t hear a bloody word they said, though.

[see also: A confrontation with a pipsqueak leaves me feeling my age]

This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future