The Unbearable Lightness of Being Corned Beef

The conservatory. We’re coming to that

I have been corned beef (Scottish rhyming slang, dear reader = deef) for the past week and a half, and I’m starting to see some advantages to it. Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t want to be deaf permanently, and there are a lot of down sides, obviously. But while I am so afflicted, particularly during lockdown, I’ve been trying to see the up side.

But first: earwax. That’s got to be one of the most disgusting substances on the planet, right? I’m not generally hugely troubled by it, but I have had my ears syringed once before. So when my left ear started blocking up, about a fortnight ago, I wasn’t too bothered. I stuck some olive oil down it (Bertolli Extra Virgin, to be precise – it was on offer) and hoped for the best. When that failed to have the desired effect and the right ear started going the same way, I thought I should do something about it.

Luckily I had a more pressing reason to see the GP, and managed to navigate my way round the Scylla and Charybdis that is his receptionist to get to see him (the receptionists are lovely, really, but they are rigorously trained – my late father-in-law, also a GP, confirmed this – to let as few patients past them as possible). Come the day, I tootled down to the surgery, rapped smartly on the outside door, and waited for a masked figure to appear from the shadows and let me into the socially distanced waiting room. One other punter sat silently at the other end of it, looking as glaikit as I felt.

Now, my GP is a fantastic bloke. He was the year ahead of me at Edinburgh and did medicine alongside one of my brothers-in-law; his brother is another connection, as a law professor who takes an interest in obscure Scots legal topics like common good. I think he appreciates the fact that I bother him as little as possible. More than that, he’s actually bought my novel! So when we had dealt with the more pressing concern and he started talking to me about books, remembering to ask him about my hearing difficulty somehow went out the window until I was driving home. Doh!

Which meant that, when I phoned back, I was directed away from the Good Doctor towards the Nurse Practitioner.

The Green Woman (to go with the Green Man) in our conservatory. Unfortunately no healing properties for deafness

No discussion of literary matters ensued: the Nurse Practitioner’s bedside manner is perhaps best described as brisk. She told me the sodium bicarbonate (known in the bakery cupboard as bicarbonate of soda) the pharmacist had recommended, and which I’d been using for the last five days, was useless and likely to burn the skin in my ears, and that I should switch back to the extra virgin. ‘That should sort it,’ she breezed confidently, ‘but if not, come back in fourteen days and we’ll syringe them.’

Fourteen days! I could literally hardly believe my ears! Why not now? I was too scared of her to ask. That was six days ago, in which time enough  olive oil to cook a Spanish village’s festive paella has gone down there, and so far, the Nurse Practitioner’s confidence in the healing properties of Bertolli seems a mite overstated. I suppose you could say I’ve not got any more deaf in that time: but that’s pretty deaf.

None of this is, of course, intended to make some sort of humour out of those with permanent hearing problems. It is pretty horrible not being able to hear things: my musical projects have all gone on hold, and I hate having to ask the Redoubtable Mrs F to repeat stuff all the time, especially as she has the decidedly dubious pleasure of administering the ear drops. I am, however, pretty sure it’s temporary, just as soon as Nurse Ratchet gets her syringe out, so in the meantime I’m hoping it gives me more empathy towards people who have to put up with this on a permanent basis.

Besides, there are interesting aspects to living in what turns out to be quite a noisy silence. My left ear, the first to get blocked, has decided to do an impression of our dishwasher, with a steady beat (presumably my pulse) intermingling with the swooshing sound that could very well be the water jets clearing the grease off the plates: just not the ear wax, unfortunately. You forget too just how much sound comes through your skeleton to the bones in your inner ear: my electric shaver now sounds like some form of industrial metal grinding process.

My right ear, meantime, mostly feeds in what appears to be a heavy shower of rain; although a couple of times, in the upper side of my remaining hearing, I can almost hear something like radio static, with occasional voices or music in the mix. I wish it wouldn’t do that, actually: it’s a bit scary. It does make you realise just how isolating a hearing problem can be, and how much harder you have to work to understand what’s going on around you.

There are some compensations. The voice recognition software on the telly subtitles can throw up some unintended gems, especially when trying to keep up with our First Minister’s daily briefings on the lockdown and its potential easing. Yesterday, for example, she apparently told us we would ‘soon be able to beat outside with people from another household.’ I think you might need to explain your use of the word ‘beat’ a bit further, Nicola!

The conservatory. Grass cutting noises optional at the moment

And there are of course some sounds you can do without. Our dear neighbours always seem to cut their grass, one after the other, when we’ve having our lunch in the conservatory: most of the sound is the only slightly annoying BRRRRR! of the lawnmower. However the second neighbour, who spookily always starts her grass cutting right after the other one’s finished, is not done with the aural assault when the main job’s complete, as she likes to cut her lawn’s edges with one of those electric edge trimmers. You know the ones: they go TCHEWWW! TCHEEWWWW! TTTCHEEEEWWW! Incredibly annoying.

Well, what do you know? The other day I sat in the conservatory having lunch, and they could do their worst without me hardly hearing any of it! The distant tchewww! was almost endearing. Almost.

Of course, what I’m experiencing is an extreme example of what’s happening around all of us in this crisis, as world noise levels generally have dropped dramatically. An article in the Times of London the other day said that the drop in noise is so big it’s been picked up by the British Geological Survey as a dramatic fall in ground vibrations. 100 of their measuring stations detected falls in noise levels generated by our daily lives of between 20 and 50 per cent. This is a very good thing – particularly as noise has been proven to have an effect on our performance of cognitive tasks, as well as raising adrenaline and cortisol levels, increasing blood pressure, and giving us a higher risk of heart disease and strokes. One of those things it would be nice to think could change for good.

The other night I went out to do the watering in the garden. For once in our 1970s suburban estate, no one was cutting their grass or wielding power tools in a garage somewhere. No one I could hear, anyway. There was just me, the bird life – what I could hear of them – and the watering. The mid-May evening sun was lingering, just thinking about making a move. I have not felt as at peace for years.

Still counting down the days to Syringie Time with ol’ Ratchie though.



  1. You could try one of our varieties of Gallo olive oil on your trip. He’s a kind of harlequin rooster ( they do use the other word without flinching) that has magical properties…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.