The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss by Nick Coleman

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The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss by Nick Coleman

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A moving, fascinating memoir of a music lover and journalist suddenly struck down overnight with severe deafness. In the course of treatment and searching vainly for a cure, he analyses why music of all kinds has always been so special for him, and how he has managed to make the best of a major disability.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 276 Date: February 2012
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 9780224093576

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Picture the scenario. You have always been passionate about music, with a catholic taste which embraces classical, soul and heavy rock with a bit of everything in between, and your job is that of an arts and music journalist. In your mid-forties you wake up one morning to find your whole world changed overnight by Sudden Neursosensory Hearing Loss. It has a devastating effect on your balance when subjected to any kind of sound, whether it is an aeroplane overhead, the roar of the crowd at a football match, or the music which you once adored with every fibre of your being. Your head is filled with tinnitus, like a very poorly-tuned radio which lacks an off switch.

With the aid of your very supportive wife, you manage to get yourself to see the GP, are taken to hospital, you have endless tests, and you are told that you will get your hearing back in six weeks or not at all. You are not referred to a specialist, merely offered sessions at a tinnitus clinic which turns out not to exist. Slowly, painfully, you make a partial recovery which enables you to regain some semblance of your former social life, and at last you meet a friend who has a far more sensible solution. She puts you in touch with a close friend of hers who turns out to be the specialist you should, but for your dear but not over-helpful GP, have consulted at once. At length the diagnosis is made that you have had a hypersensitive nervous system from birth, and suffered a severe migraine, mistakenly thought to be some kind of a stroke.

But you will not get your hearing back. You have a severe, not to say crippling disability in middle age which leaves you having to get on with life the best you can.

This all happened to Nick Coleman. He came from a family which always adored music, and one of the high points of boyhood was at the age of ten when he opened a village carol service as the chorister who sang the solo first verse of 'Once in Royal David's City'. This unleashes several thoughtful pages on music, religion, and the beauty of hymns and carols. Three years later he was saving up his pocket money to buy his first long-playing record, 'Razamanaz', by Scottish hard rockers Nazareth. During his teen years he was similarly enthused by the music of Genesis, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones – even to the point of having a fantasy in which he replaced guitarist Mick Taylor in the band. A few pages later, he treats us to a fascinating, detailed analysis of Marvin Gaye's 'I Heard it Through the Grapevine', and what it means to him.

The book does not follow a straightforward pattern. Coleman starts off with the devastating loss of hearing, then reminiscences about his childhood and teenage years in Cambridgeshire, followed by a career as a music journalist, then returns to the deafness, his and his wife's frustrating efforts to try and get his hearing back, followed by further reminiscences – including a very funny account of when he was asked to DJ at a village fete and found himself somewhat limited by the fact that the single record deck he was working with would only play records at 45 and 78 rpm (yes, in the mid-1970s) - and an analysis of his responses to the music of his life.

Disconnected, even unplugged, from a vitally important part of his life and his senses, he learnt to cope. It was an indefinable mix of instinct, memory, and effort to piece together and somehow reactivate the triggers of his former life. If he can't physically hear the music he loves again, at least he can somehow hear it in his head, even to the point where he can write a piece for a Sunday newspaper on the Rolling Stones' 'Exile on Main Street' to coincide with its reissue in remastered form – a record which contains 'Tumbling Dice', his favourite piece of music ever. He conveys vividly the loss in not being inside and a living part of the music any more, how to some extent it has become the equivalent of looking at a flat-line drawing of a magnificent building. He describes how it was when he came out of hospital and avoided looking at his massive record collection as he did not dare dwell on the monument to the life he once had.

In the process, he analyses and puts his finger on why music was, is and always will be so important to him as a dedicated fan. In fact, the book ends with a long list covering everyone from Schubert and Elgar, through Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, to the Everly Brothers and Massive Attack, whose music at some point in the past has sounded to him like the best thing he has ever heard.

This book was of particular personal interest to me as the husband of a professional classical musician and teacher who is still pursuing a career in the face of sudden partial hearing loss in middle age herself. There were moments when I wondered if the adolescent reminiscences could have been edited a little – but it is his book, and his sheer enthusiasm shines through passages which otherwise might border on the trivial. For anybody who has been through such an overwhelming experience, this is an inspiring read. There is only a limit as to how far you can put the pieces back together again – but Coleman has managed it astonishingly well. It is indeed a very thoughtful and inspiring read.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks.

This book came to Bookbag courtesy of [ Ilkley Literature Festival where Nick Coleman is appearing on 11 October.

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