I was delighted to be asked to take part in this blog tour, running ahead of the announcement of the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize longlist in February. This most unique of literary awards which “rewards exceptional works of literature that illuminate the many ways that health, medicine and illness touch our lives,” is ten years old this year, and the blog tour celebrates the riches in the Prize’s shortlists and winning books from years gone by. The Wellcome Book Prize is an award I’ve followed for several years now, and last year I joined an unofficial shadow panel chaired by Rebecca, and hope to do so again this year. You can read all my reviews of last year’s shortlist and review of the winner from 2017 here.
I was offered my choice of the shortlist from 2012 to cover from a strong and, as always, varied selection. Here they are:
Circulation by Thomas Wright, subtitled William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea, went on to win in 2012, but a different title leapt out at me. While I’d happily read any of them, the one by the rock journalist was my obvious choice, so here are my thoughts on:
The Train in the Night by Nick Coleman
Nick Coleman had been an arts and music journalist for the NME, Time Out and the Independent amongst other publications for quarter of a century. His job entailed listening to music, but suddenly one day in 2007 that was taken away from him as he recalls in the opening of his book.
Silence descended suddenly and without warning. I put two mugs of tea on the bedside table, sat down, passed one to my wife, hoicked my legs into bed, lowered my head and …pffffff.
One ear gone.
… After an hour, the pffff had developed a pulse. Then the pulse smoothed itself out and I started to throw up. Eventually I went to hospital.
He had suffered a total loss of hearing in one ear and acute tinnitus which sounded ‘like a half-blown amplifier’ in his head. Every sound hurt, every movement made his feel sick. No cause could be found, scans came up with no suggestions, no guarantees of hearing recovery could be made. He was released home to essentially fend for himself.
Coleman’s memoir combines the story of his love affair with music from his early teenage years with his ongoing struggles to cope with his condition. Returning home, he is confronted by his now ‘high-end container-monument’ of a record collection:
Somehow, my wounded, deafened, self-pitying psyche regards my record collection as a sort of reliquary of the old, lost me; maybe as a narratable version of me. Me through time. It tells my story over the thirty-four years’ passage since I was thirteen, in 1973, which was when I bought the first record and plunged, half-knowingly, half -not into a dialogue involving myself and the world; one I imagined would go on forever and which now, quite clearly, isn’t going to.
It was a joy to read about Coleman’s musical education. From sitting down with his slightly non-plussed classical music fan father to listen to that first album (by Nazareth), through a love affair with prog, from Pink Floyd (a must for any Fenland teenager as Syd lived nearby in Cambridge) to Genesis and Yes to admitting that Coldplay does nothing for him, loving the complexity in Amy Winehouse’s modern soul, and why Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones could be the greatest record of all time, he writes wonderfully about all his influences, and coming from the Genesis + Rolling Stones camp myself, I couldn’t help but be entranced. I also share his views on the Beatles which I couldn’t put better:
You see, eve though the Beatles are obviously great in every way – what tunes! what musicality! what talent! – what I get first in my head when I hear them is the sound of ingratiation. The sound of wanting to please. The sound of boyish charm. […] It’s in the self-conscious skilfulness of their songwriting and studiocraft; it’s in the mannered counterpoint of McCartney’s sentimentalism and Lennon’s studied rage.
[…] My mum and dad didn’t like the Beatles, not as such. They didn’t like any pop music. But, crucially, they didn’t mind the Beatles.
Coleman goes through a deep depression, but eventually realises that he will have to face the world again, shuffling around on two sticks. He tries a football match, and the pain of the noise both wipes him out and is totally exhilarating; the kind treatment he gets at the turnstile from the attendant who sees him as disabled is both heartwarming and a realisation for him that this is what he is now.
He corresponds with Oliver Sacks, who has written his book on music, Musicophilia. He talks about subjectivity and taste in music, the intensity of feeling we have for certain pieces which is fascinating. He describes why a quote in a review of David Lodge’s book Deaf Sentence ensures that he’d never read that novel (‘Deafness is comic, as blindness is tragic’) – which is unfortunate and rather sad. Coleman also updates us on finding some treatment to help him cope with his vertigo, but nothing seems to touch the tinnitus though – it must be excruciating to live with.
It was a sheer pleasure to journey through Nick Coleman’s thirty-four years of music which, given that we are the same age, brought back many memories for me. It was devastating to read about the indifferent treatment he originally received and the emotional consequences. He appears to be coping – his new book Voices, about singing and singers, came out last year and will be available in paperback in March, I’d love to read that too. The Train in the Night as a personal musical journey is full of insight, both musical and medical, and was well-deserving of its place on the 2012 Wellcome Book Prize shortlist. (10/10)
Source: Review copy – thank you. Nick Coleman, The Train in the Night (2012) Vintage paperback, 288 pages. Buy from Amazon UK via affiliate link below: