Sound: Stories of Hearing Lost and Found by Bella Bathurst – review

A profound account of a life changed by deafness – and what it was like to come out on the other side
‘The deafened have no group identity to call their own’: Bella Bathurst in Regent’s Park, London
‘The deafened have no group identity to call their own’: Bella Bathurst in Regent’s Park, London. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

Sound: Stories of Hearing Lost and Found by Bella Bathurst – review

A profound account of a life changed by deafness – and what it was like to come out on the other side

The builders next door are tearing the building apart. They are turning one kind of flat outside itself and making it into another, and then remaking the whole envelope again. I can hear when the drill enters the party wall. A drill in wood doesn’t sound like a drill in metal or plaster. Brick dust scuttles down a wall cavity. Noise transmits in different ways through lath, brick and board and – as they have now taken the roof off – air. In quieter moments, I can hear the radio and their Australian accents, the clomp of them on the scaffolding. The house is alive with vibration. I can tell – just – that they are not in my flat but in the next. I cannot see any of this but I can hear it. I am trying to write about a book called Sound.

Sound: Stories of Hearing Lost and Found by Bella Bathurst is the story of a life shaped by the slow onset of deafness and the subsequent return of her hearing. Bathurst is a writer and photojournalist. She has written books on lighthouse keepers and a history of shipwrecks and wreckers, both marginal, outsider occupations. She is by trade a listener and a compiler of stories. This time the stories are her own and those of other groups affected by noise and its disorders: musicians, military personnel, factory workers. Bathurst writes from the unusual position of coming out the other side, the hearing side. Her deafness was temporary and this is rare. She started to lose her hearing at 27 and was deafened for 12 years. In 2009, when the real reason for her hearing loss became apparent, she discovered that her condition was operable. Her gobsmacked delight at the anthropophony of London, Cashier number THREE please!, leaps out in staccato sentences scored with exclamation marks.

Though there is a chapter on sign, Bathurst makes a clear distinction between the deaf and the far greater group of the deafened. Sound is primarily about the latter. The deaf are many. The deafened are legion – around 11 million people in the UK have some form of hearing loss through age, illness or infirmity. The deafened have no group identity to call their own, no political leverage. The deafened are atomised. The condition ranges from getting by to not coping at all. Among the elderly, it is particularly acute. Because hearing is so complex, hearing loss is also, and mental health issues are multiple.

Bathurst moves readily from micro to macro: from the tiny spiral of the cochlea with its individual hair cells curled inside the ear, to the vast expanses of the Clyde shipyards: steel-plated temples to the deafening of generations of workers. It was 1984 before a landmark case established an employer’s liability for work-related hearing damage. She talks to soldiers about the use of white noise as torture and to ear surgeons about vibration: the inner ear is so remote, an ear surgeon is a neurosurgeon.

Soldiers are trained to work in proximity with outrageous noise, but when their hearing deteriorates, the military are slow to act on it. The incentive to move someone to a desk job after the stratospheric expense of training them is small. Bathurst tries to interview rock musicians about tinnitus, but none will speak to her. Deafness is too ageing.

As much as there is deafness, there is denial, and her writing about the pervasiveness and destructive power of denial rings true. The book opens with a meditation on the perils of going sailing without being able to hear. This is before she has acknowledged the extent of her hearing loss to herself, let alone to friends, so the trip is a dangerous disaster.

Hearing loss is usually a continuum; it is easy to persuade yourself that it is all OK. First encounters with hearing aids are not pretty. “Great blocky lumps of plastic in the same flat grey-beige shade as a hernia gusset.” She customises them with nail polish and glitter but doesn’t wear them.

“Every noise, whether it’s the song of a skylark or the crack of a rifle, is made of the same three things: air, pressure, time.” Bathurst is good on aural geography, the miraculous hammer, anvil and stirrup, themselves the answer to quiz questions about the smallest bones in the body. And as with any life-changing experience, she picks up a lot of extraneous expertise along the way. An otologist – that’s what you call an ear doctor – tells her that if she were a bird it would be different as the hair cells in the ears of birds regenerate in weeks.

The book is freighted with struggle. Going for a meal becomes not so much about the food as about pre-empting the acoustics of the restaurant. People who can’t hear settle for pizza – the simplest option. There is the risk of getting things wrong, the boredom of repetition, the embarrassment of slowness. Having to spend all your time straining to hear your companion is exhausting. Easier to give up the companion. A retired soldier describes quietly how pleasure dries up: he stops going to the theatre; stops answering the phone; stops being able to hear his grandchildren.

For a long time, things go badly downhill for Bathurst. “I rang the Samaritans but they spoke so quietly I couldn’t hear them.” The relentlessness of coping leads to self-loathing, undermining of confidence and more isolation. Deafness has become a moral issue. At the lowest point, she asks, ever so politely, to be sectioned and is told gently to come back on Monday. But slowly, surely, she remakes a happier place in the world as a deaf person, and the first step towards that is in communicating with others how bad it has become. Sight gives you the world, but hearing gives you other people.

Bathurst places listening and being listened to at the heart of her rehabilitation. Silence came slow, but love, as she puts it, “worked at the speed of light”. Then, when the operation comes and her hearing is restored, it is returned to someone who has been profoundly changed by the experience.

Marion Coutts is an artist and author, whose memoir, The Iceberg, won the Wellcome book prize in 2015.

Sound: Stories of Hearing Lost and Found by Bella Bathurst is published by Profile Books (£14.99). To order a copy for £11.24 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99