June 21, 2021

Not many people hear about deafness. The ones that perhaps need to can’t hear anyway, and the ones with good hearing can’t be bothered. Consequently, there is not much in books or the media about it.

The problem is that there is obviously a growing number of deaf people. How do I know? Thirty years ago, I had to go to John Bell & Croyden off Baker Street just to get the batteries for my hearing aids. Now I notice there are three shops selling hearing aids in Kensington High Street. Well, someone must be buying them.

When I first got hearing aids in 1979, they told me I had lost 20% of my hearing. But it is a lot worse now. The reason I got them was I had been teaching for a week in San Francisco, and at the end of the week we had a seminar and I realised I had great difficulty hearing people from the back (especially girls). This prompted me to go for a test, and I was told I had an issue with both ears. Once I got the hearing aids, people noticed I was much less fidgety. In order to hear people, I was always moving around.

My father went very deaf at the age of 40 and my mother had very good hearing. I can remember sometime in the Fifties when we were all having Sunday lunch round the table. The radio was playing “The Forces’ Choice”, a programme of gramophone records for soldiers in Germany. They were playing Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Oh, do you remember this Kenneth?” said my mother to my Father. We all looked at him. He got up and went to the loud speaker and listened intently for a while and then announced: “Oh yes! It’s Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight.”

We all laughed, and my mother looked perplexed. My sister is very deaf, and now some of my nephews and nieces. So my deafness, I’m told, is hereditary.

I never liked background music. Music for me has to be in the foreground. I never play music when I paint or draw. I did enjoy going to concerts and the opera because it had a non-electronic sound. I used to play music in my car, the last one having eight speakers, but if passengers wanted to talk, I turned it off. The drive from London to Bridlington takes about four hours and we would play a Georg Solti recording of “Tannhäuser” — marvellous for going 80 miles an hour on the motorway. I can recommend it.

So restaurants and pubs have got rid of smokers — but I think they have cleared out the wrong pollutants. The real one for me is noise. Ah, you think, why should noise be a problem for people who can’t hear? For me the problem is clarity, not volume. If a person with very good hearing enters a crowded room where everyone is talking, they can fade out that background noise and hear the person talking to them. I lost this ability 40 years ago; I just hear one noise that makes me leave the room as quickly as possible.

I had given up going to restaurants in LA before the smoking ban because of noise. Some restaurants are incredibly noisy, especially those with few soft furnishings and lots of glass mirrors and hard surfaces. I don’t go out much, and only go to other people’s houses if they have no more than eight people — and I can smoke. I am perfectly happy at home, with a few guests or none at all. The moment two people start talking together, and then another two join in, I am out of it and retire to my quiet bedroom to read. I can hear every word in a book.

The one good thing about my deafness is it has made me perceive space quite differently. A blind man gets around with his hearing and so why shouldn’t a deaf person perceive space differently. Of course you might only detect this if you are an artist. And since I am deeply interested in perception and depiction, of course I’ve noticed this.

I have had to organise my life now a bit differently. I really don’t want to go anywhere where there will be a crowded room. So I avoid art openings, which can be really bad because of the hard surfaces. I am OK because I have that purpose in life; I can paint and draw in silence for days on end. But deaf people do tend to end up quite isolated, as it becomes hard work to listen to what others are saying.

So what will become of all those people losing their hearing? I can see it might be a big problem in the future, especially for waiters in those noisy restaurants.

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