The first thing that struck me was what if this happens to the other one?

It got me thinking about disability in ways that hadn’t crossed my mind before. I was supposed to deliver a talk last Wednesday on The India Road, and this was going to chuck a spanner in the works. I decided there and then nothing was going to stop me anyhow.

‘Keep calm and carry on,’ as the Brits proclaimed during the war. The saying recently witnessed a revival, with bizarre variations appearing on t-shirts, mugs, and greeeting cards. My suggestion to all of those would be ‘keep calm and don’t be a jerk.’

Throwing a spanner in the works is also a throwback to another age, innocent of computer viruses and genetically modified soya bean oil. An era of large, clunky machines, ones that rusted and leaked and belched out reels of smoke. Giant cogs drove toothed drive belts and steam gauges. I envisage the spanner being hurled by a disgruntled worker from the Black Country, fed up with twenty-five hour working days, dirt, noise, and irrelevant pay.

A man at the end of his tether, with too many kids at home, a wife suffering from consumption, and nothing but a dark tunnel shaping his future. In my mind’s eye, the spanner is made of steel, it is of the adjustable variety known in Portuguese as a chave inglesa, or ‘English key.’

The spanner, as the name indicates, is not merely dropped. This XIXth century worker from Derby, probably already missing a finger or two that he lost as a ten-year-old working in the mill, doesn’t need to be maimed. It’s been dark outside for hours, and the sleety cold winter of the British Midlands makes his tunic feel paper-thin.

The foreman swears an obscenity at him, and something in his head snaps. His face grim and coal-streaked, he takes a few steps,  turns, and spins the tool high in a parabola—the silvery steel seems to spark as it descends and penetrates the bowels of the machine that rules his waking hours and tortures him when he sleeps.

With a deafening clang, and the ping of rivets torn from their housing, striking like bullets on the damp walls, the factory grinds to a halt. The great engines exhale a cloud of steam, as if it were their dying breath.

The scourge of the XIXth century. On my Rabbit's side, most of my grandmother's family died from it. As did my uncle and aunt, both before I was born. The consumption that afflicts the West is now of a different sort.

Tuberculosis: the scourge of the XIXth century. On my Rabbit’s side, most of my grandmother’s family died from it. As did my uncle and aunt, both before I was born. The consumption that afflicts the West is now of a different sort.

For most people who don’t have a disability, and are not close to it either through work or family, understanding can come only from firsthand experience. In Lisbon, one of the organizations that represents blind people offers a ‘blind for a day’ program. It helps those who are lucky enough to have normal eyesight to begin to comprehend the challenges of crossing a road, catching a bus, or buying a meal.

I closed my eyes and tried to write.

I have decided to write blind. I am not very good at it.
I hacd xdciddd fi sfigd vlinf. I am nof vfgu boov xg h.

I can see (and you can see) that I’m reasonably close, although I only got three (of the smallest) words out of thirteen right. Autocorrection software might flag that I’m generally a keyboard row off—in other words I have a latitude problem, but longitude is roughly okay.

I found it ironic that my left ear went stone deaf the day after I’d been researching hearing aids for one of my relatives. I hate problems I can’t solve, and those have largely to do with rolling back time, the one thing we’re unable to do.

I’m re-reading Michael Crichton’s ‘TImeline’, and he tells us time doesn’t pass, we pass. It’s a difficult concept to get our heads around, but Michael was right: time is invariant, and when we measure it we’re merely measuring the rate at which we change—ultimately, the rate at which we live and die.

Sudden deafness, I found out, is a medical emergency. The reason is that Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss can have devastating permanent effects. In my case, I discovered that the human ear reacts to cold water by increasing bone growth, gradually narrowing the ear canal. The common name for this is ‘surfer’s ear,’ the irony there being that I don’t surf. But I’ve been swimming, diving, and generally in contact with cold water for many years.

“It happens over a period of decades,” the doctor told me, after he’d restored my hearing.

“Well, I have a few of those.”

By the time I gave my talk, I could once again hear in stereo. However, for a day and a half, I physically understood the liability of being (in this case half) deaf. It’s reasonably easy to deal with one on one conversations, if you turn your head the right way, but when there’s ambient noise it’s almost impossible to hear the person in front of you, your one working ear is simply unable to discriminate foreground and background.

Hearing aids cost a small fortune, and I found out why. The technology itself is not that expensive, although as you’d expect miniaturization increases price—the real cost factor is the service component, including the audiometry tests, and fitting of devices. That’s where you soar from hundreds to thousands of dollars. So I turned to an internet startup called Audicus to look at ways to help my relative streamline the cost.

One of the first things I found out about was brain training. As you age, your brain processing speed apparently diminishes—I’m not sure why, but it is true that older people slow down in various ways, and I guess that affects hearing as it does other senses.

If you can’t hear, the smallest gesture we take for granted becomes a nightmare, from waking up to an alarm clock to calling 911. I came away understanding why evolution has provided us with a pair of anything important—eyes and ears, kidneys and lungs.

My ear wars date from childhood. When I was around eight I had both my tonsils and adenoids removed, and the constant ear infections disappeared. I was promised ice cream, but instead I woke up toward the end of the procedure, to be confronted by a kidney bowl filled with blood. My godfather had a worse time of it—in rural 1940s Portugal his tonsils were removed without anesthetic.

By now you must be thinking this is a savage land. Not true, when you come you’ll be disarmed by the gentle folk you meet. Stubborn, though, and not easily led. People who will be here long after austerity has become a failed European experiment.

Nowadays the West still has rampant consumption, but of a different nature. As for the Black Country, it has turned yellow, and migrated to the hinterlands of Vietnam and the sweatshops of Shenzhen. I drove through those areas of Guangdong five years ago, and even the sunroof had to be shut because of the air quality.

As for the little children, you can find your ten-year-olds in 2013 in the sweatshops that line the port of Jakarta, peeling shrimp for the western plate.

Keep calm and peel your own shrimp.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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