The Sound (If Any) of Music

For Triode's special music issue, I ransacked my earliest memories without success. Aged relatives assure me that when small (and equipped, Lord help us, with golden curls) I betrayed great enthusiasm for banging drums and blowing through anything that made a noise. They were delighted with this musical brat, and waited for many patient months in the hope that I might extend my repertoire from one note to two. It seems I never did.

The nature of my troubles didn't really emerge until, at seven or thereabouts, I moved to a larger school with larger classes, there coming over as notably more stupid than before. A wise old music master listened to my first attempts to play the recorder, and tenderly said "Get out." In class I was labelled as one who had to be watched ... unless they put me right at the front of the class my attention seemed to wander. One day a succession of light-bulbs flashed over the headmaster's curiously shaped cranium. (When I next changed schools, my father said "You've had four years of a Head whose head looks squashed-in side to side: well, your new one has a head that looks squashed-in top to bottom....") "The lad is deaf!" he hinted to my parents, who took it phlegmatically enough. It hadn't been long since they found I was short-sighted in one eye; this had been concealed for years by my own ingenious reasoning that since my left hand was so much clumsier than the right, the left eye could hardly be expected to make out things more than a foot away.

Inspired to pessimism by my defective state, my mother cast about for other interesting things that could be wrong with me. A chance eruption of spots, she decided with dread, was the result of blackcurrant juice allergy ... so I drank no Ribena for about six years. The craving came over me then, and having no Ribena Anonymous to talk me down, I swigged a mug of the deadly liquid. No spots.

I didn't seem obviously diabetic or consumptive: the possibility of colour-blindness was next in line.

"What colour's that pen?" said my mother one day, well primed with Reader's Digest articles.

I looked. "Red."

"David! What colour is it?"

I looked again, puzzled: "It's red."

"Oh God! You don't mean that. Are you sure?" She had gone quite white.

I picked up the pen and demonstrated on the back of my hand: it wrote in red, as I'd expected. Anyone could see the pen was made of blue plastic, but who'd ask about an irrelevant thing like that ? A pesty brat, but a logical one. Mother clipped me on the ear from sheer relief.

It wasn't long before our wonderful National Health Service hiccupped and ejected in my direction a hearing-engine (Marvels of Victorian Technology No. 33) about the size of a present-day [1977] pocket calculator. Or a small cigar-box. Miles of wire, enough to strangle in, linked its earpiece to the main body. The thing was supposed to clip into the top pocket of the Gents' Natty Jacket I wouldn't be wearing for some years; as a compromise we hung it round my neck. That way I had a choice. Inside my sweater, the rubbing of the microphone against woolly cloth produced a constant whoosh and hiss, swaying me to sleep with sea-sounds; worn outside the sweater, the device would dangle and swing, striking rhythmically against my ribs and smiting my ear with the heavy thudding of a lumberjack's axe. My school performance did not improve.

In SF, the mildest of handicaps is liable to be balanced by all sorts of useful powers. The only arcane ability I could muster was an undue sensitivity to the tiny whine of a tv line-output – the sound of the picture, so to speak, audible with the volume control right off. The trouble was that although I'd complain loudly about this sound, the rest of the family either couldn't hear it or weren't bothered. Strange.... Likewise, in SF, mechanical aids tend to be better than the original. I was amazed to find myself unable to detect tiny sounds at vast distances through the wondrous future technology of the Device; if I tried, an eardrum was liable to be wrenched loose by the fearful din of my own fingers upon the volume control.

Back at school, they still seemed obsessed with music; this, after all, was Wales. The Choir was so packed with natural-born singers that there was never any need to scrape the barrel (me). Worst of all was our very own Infant Prodigy, a child who played the piano-accordion. So vast were her alleged talents that she was often encouraged to perform to the forcibly assembled school. Ah, the suffering; Bosch and his Musical Hell had nothing on Susan A. It was during one of her sessions that I discovered the blest advantage of hearing-aids, the secret power which exalts their wearers above mere mortals. You can turn them off.

Shifting to another school, I acquired a more sophisticated aid which went invisibly behind my ear, or would have if I'd been allowed to grow a little more hair. It had a tendency to feedback, producing curious beeps at irregular intervals. Since the tonal quality was pretty minimal, the overall effect was of those stirring lines we later heard from outer space, as man acknowledged his conquest of the high frontier with the immortal phrase "Garble grackle garble grackle beep." At this time my musical career was in full spate owing to two years of compulsory O-level course in that squamous subject. Again, this being Wales, the music class was dominated by half-a-dozen superkids like Dai Price, whose exam marks fluctuated only slightly from a basic 98%. Daio was a dab hand with recorder, violin, piano and harmonica. My most notable achievement was a failure to recognize "God Save The Queen" either by ear or from the score. (I know this was Wales, but I couldn't spot "Land of My Fathers" either....)

I know how to deal with music now (apart from pub juke-boxes, which induce in me a murderous rage). From time to time a friend plays me uplifting extracts from Wagner etc; and I sit attentively reading a book, with the machine turned off. Defeatist ... but I can't make head or tail of this melody business, the mystic paraphernalia of harmony and discord and whatnot. Gimme a rhythm and I'll sway to it as best I can; the rest is gibberish.

Gibberish, of course, was the only thing that the Oracle of the Telephone would say to me for many years. Lately we've hired a phone with a built in amplifier of such power that you can rattle the windows with the dialling tone. Turn up the volume and a shriek of feedback fills the room, echoing down the lines and no doubt scaring some distant GPO engineer into wetting himself. Martin Hoare finds a childish fascination in this phone, and plays with it whenever he visits; I experienced childish triumph just recently when calling Rob Jackson – I could hear him and he couldn't hear me. Victory!

Despite a brand-new hearing aid (courtesy of a motorcycle which shattered the old one even as I wore it) I still react atypically to some sounds. Hazel wakes me occasionally to tell of the terrible thunderstorm that's raging, and then goes to hide under the table while I lie counting the flashes and straining to hear this awful, fabled thunder.... On the other hand, the fridge keeps making me jump. It shudders from top to bottom as if no longer able to contain the intolerable cold inside, bottles clink and chime like a milk-float dropped from forty feet. Hazel has promised to make little felt jackets for them, but I suspect her of joking. Then there are the totally strange noises. Last week there came a sound of evil laughter, thick, hoarse and monstrous, freezing me to the typewriter chair –

"Hazel! What was that? Were you ... laughing?"

"It was a car horn, dear."

I don't understand these things at all....

"Sorry, Hazel? What was that about ... yoghurt fritters?"

"Ubiquitous, dear,"

True tone-deafness, I was told quite recently, is rare. Maybe I don't have it after all. Maybe I'm just musically illiterate. Possibly my apathy when faced with the mysterious sounds of music is a carry-over from Susan A. and the purgatory of Welsh music classes.

I don't know what I'm missing, you say – but to be frank, it doesn't bother me. All I ask is an undetectable means of disabling juke-boxes then I'll drink my ale and chat in peace.

About music, even. But keep it strictly verbal.