Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life: Alexander Chancellor

Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life: Alexander Chancellor

Article excerpt

Most people, when asked if they would rather be deaf or blind, say they would rather be deaf. I would say that, too. Deafness is obviously a wretched and isolating condition, but it appears to be less absolute in its effects than blindness. A blind person simply can't see anything. With the deaf it is more complicated. Dame Evelyn Glennie, whose deafness didn't stand in the way of her becoming one of the world's greatest percussionists, contends that hearing is just a form of touch; that if your ears aren't working, you can feel sounds as vibrations in other parts of the body. 'The low sounds I feel mainly in my legs and feet, and high sounds might be in particular places on my face, neck and chest,' she writes; and she claims she still has perfect pitch. Thomas Edison's deafness didn't prevent him discovering how to record sound, and Beethoven's deafness did not impair his ability to write great music.

The blind, on the other hand, do at least attract sympathy. Other people go out of their way to help them, steer them across the road, and so on. The deaf have no such luck. People just find deafness irritating; they get tired of shouting and repeating themselves, and frustrated by being misunderstood. Sometimes they even come to suspect that a person isn't as deaf as he pretends, that he is just using deafness as a cover for the fact that he can't be bothered to listen. I have sometimes been guilty of this myself. My father was always saying in his old age that he couldn't hear anything; but once, when I tiptoed past his study hoping to get out-of-doors without having to stop to talk to him, he shouted from his desk: 'Will you come in here for a moment, Alexander.' I thought I had rumbled him, but perhaps he was just feeling vibrations like Evelyn Glennie.

Now it's my turn to irritate people. In recent years my hearing has become progressively worse. I am not terribly deaf, but deaf enough to mishear words and find myself constantly saying 'What?'. While I secretly resent the fact that others won't speak more clearly and loudly in the first place, their own annoyance at having to repeat themselves is made very plain. It is all an impediment to domestic harmony. …

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