A Music Writer Going Deaf Is No Joke. Except When It Is

Clare! Clare? CLARE! Clare?

“Oh, oh, I see. You mean, ‘Has the postman delivered any mail this morning?’”

All families have their comic rituals, their riffs, and their catches. My family’s no different, and we like nothing better than to seize the opportunity to rehearse them.

Especially the Clare one.

I love my family as much as any man does, but the Clare gag has surely run its course. It has lost what lustre it ever had as a routine and is beginning to feel old. It was funny once, but now its only use is as a ritual binding of familial solidarity in the face of suffering and loss of the will to live—which I freely admit, now I think about it for the millionth time, is a good reason for the Clare routine to exist. And besides, it seems to make them laugh, and I, of course, end up joining in after a well-judged period of scowling and cursing them all to hell and back on a scooter. But that just seems to make them laugh all the more and pat different bits of my anatomy kindly. I always cave in.

I expect you’re wondering who Clare is. Well, the honest answer is that I don’t know. No one knows. Who is Clare? She is an airy being of no substance, composed of light and pure love, probably. But none of us know who Clare is, whatever she’s made of. And that’s the point.

Here’s how Clare first manifested herself.

Oh. The first thing you need to know, actually, is that I’m deaf. As in really quite deaf. Totally deaf on one side and severely deaf on the other, quite a lot of the time, which means I often can’t hear much of anything. I use a hearing aid on the severe side to communicate, negotiate teeming highways, and well, yes, survive generally in the world, I suppose. To enable me to be in the world.

Deafness is as much about the stuff you do hear as the stuff you can’t.

But that does not mean the hearing aid enables me to hear everything accurately—even on those blessed occasions when, for a few days every now and then, the hearing on the severe side improves to the level of moderate deafness (I won’t talk about those happy moments now because I get carried away and then I run out of time, but those days are magical, with music and all).

Back to Clare.

Clare was, uh, unveiled the day my lovely wife said to me, as she composed a shopping list, “Nick, do you remember the sort of light bulb we need?” And I replied, “Clare? Who is Clare?” And she said, “I don’t know, do I? You tell me. Who is Clare? Yeah, who is Clare?” And I said, “How am I supposed to know? The only Clare I’ve ever known even slightly was Clare the wife of Wayne the cricketer, and I didn’t know her well at all. Which Clare are you talking about?”

At which point my wife put down her pen and said, “Hang on a minute.”


Yes, I know, it sounds like a play by Samuel Beckett. Or a bad parody of one. But this is exactly how it went down in real life. Exactly. Like some kind of joke-surrealist definition of a non sequitur. Jane said something about light bulbs, and I heard her say something about someone called Clare. Just like that. I can remember the feeling of it from three or four years ago when it happened. I distinctly heard her ask a question about Clare.

But this is the thing about going deaf. Deafness is as much about the stuff you do hear as the stuff you can’t. You can’t win—it always has you over a barrel one way or another. The brain is the organ that does the hearing for you, and it has its nasty little ways with you and your expectations. It will have its perverse cruelties or, as others may call them, its little jokes, all in the name of supposedly supplying working auditory function to the host organism. And these strange things really happen, I can tell you. Oh, yes. Had I the time, I’d tell you all about when Tom Waits came to stay. For two whole weeks. He was great, in his way, and then he evaporated, as all auditory hallucinations do as conditions alter in the great pattern-seeking engine between your ears.

But lacking the time and space for neuroscience, I’ll send you on your way with an uplifting little game to play.

Right. You say, “Do you think it’s going to snow?” I’ll then say, “The Duke of Wellington.” At which point you all shriek, “Clare! Clare! CLARE!” And I will pretend to get upset for about three minutes.

Read more from our Summer 2023 issue.

Post Date:

September 6, 2023