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Book Prize Blog: The Train in the Night – A Story of Music and Loss, by Nick Coleman

31 Oct, 2012

Cover image for ‘The Train in the Night’

In the latest in our series of Book Prize Blogs, Holly Story reads ‘The Train in the Night’ – Nick Coleman’s account of his relationship with music and experience of hearing loss.

At the age of 47, music journalist Nick Coleman suffered complete and sudden hearing loss in one ear. He developed severe tinnitus, lost his ability to balance, had difficulty seeing, standing up, moving. In this book, he describes the onset of deafness and his struggle to cope with his condition. And around this harrowing story he explores his lifelong relationship with music.

Writing about music is a difficult business, not least because, as Coleman points out, “We cannot know how music sounds to others.” Whatever we say about music is likely to reveal more about us than the soundwaves wiggling into our ears. This makes any account of one’s musical life a revealing read. And Coleman, as a 25 year-veteran of the music scene, knows this all too well.

He observes that “subjectivity – how we get the world discretely – is to my mind the most interesting part of an individual, the one thing about a person which is authentically mysterious”. In The Train in the Night he scrutinises this mystery, unfolding his own experiences with skill, honesty, humor and without pretension.

Coleman describes his adolescent encounters with prog rock and punk in “the fens of East Anglia” and along the way explores the puzzling nature of music, memory, taste and teenagers. As the young Nick buys his first record, goes to a gig, listens to the radio and DJs at the village fair, you can almost hear the tracks he plays and meet the bands through Coleman’s expert sketches of the 70s music scene.

This earlier autobiographical narrative is entertaining, often funny, and gives music buffs the chance to indulge in some nostalgic trips down memory lane. But the narrative does more than add variety to Coleman’s story – it is a touching and powerful communication of how formative and vital music has been to the author’s life. When he returns to the subject of his later hearing loss, we understand more keenly the seismic impact of his loss.

The confidence and clarity with which Coleman discusses rock and roll stands in stark contrast with the terrible disorientation and uncertainty that surround the onset of his deafness. For months, Coleman and his wife Jane struggled to obtain information, advice or support from the health professionals who they encountered. The author does not rail against the health service – but his habit of referring wryly to the advice of “the authorities”, what “they said…”, what “they’ve lined up for you”, is indictment enough of the quality of communication and care they experienced.

After another fruitless consultation, Coleman describes how, “As [he and Jane] shuffled down the corridor … Jane held up her notebook… The page was blank.” This simple gesture stayed with me as I continued to read. Jane’s frustration at having nothing to write draws attention to Nick’s opposite impulse: to write, and to write about the unknown. The idea of writing a book when sitting in front of a computer makes “the whirlies go into overdrive…[so that within] seconds you are chewing on the leading edge of you own vomit” is nothing if not defiant. I like to think that The Train in the Night is Coleman’s two-fingered salute to the spectre of the blank page.

At the end of the book the author fills two pages with a list of great musicians. The act of writing, of transcribing those names onto paper, seems to strengthen him in his conclusion: “On reflection, the world is full of beautiful music.”

Below is a short film which has been produced by the Wellcome Trust as part of a series of shorts about the shortlisted titles. To view the full playlist visit the Wellcome Trust YouTube channel.

For further information and book club reading packs for all the shortlisted entries please visit the Book Prize website.

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