I’m a sucker for books written by middle-aged music journalists about their formative years and the records and bands that have moved or carried particular meaning for them (Giles Smith’s Lost In Music and Nick Hornby’s semi-autobiographical High Fidelity being two notably fine examples), so when I happen upon one written by someone who grew up in my home town I’m not going to pass it by. Nick Coleman’s The Train In The Night even bears a vintage-looking photograph of a young man carrying that most evocative of all things, an Andy’s Records carrier bag, and gratifyingly it turns out that, like me and Nick Hornby, Coleman also had a spell doing musical National Service at Andy’s.
The Train In The Night does however have more of a tale to tell than just a bunch of admittedly very well-turned and amusing anecdotes involving inappropriate DJ-ing at village fetes and strings of ill-fated and ego-ridden amateur rock bands. Its principal hook is that it contains an account of how Coleman suddenly and debilitatingly lost all hearing in one ear and how after a long period of acclimatising to the constant howling tinnitus, the frequent nausea and the total lack of physical balance he started to make tentative steps to listening and enjoying music again, albeit in a very different way. These sections have more in common with the books of neurologist Oliver Sacks than those of Smith or Hornby (and in fact Coleman does at point engineer a short meeting with Sacks in an attempt to gain insight into his condition), and are fascinating for the picture Coleman draws of how his perceptions of music have changed: from a 3-dimensional architectural space to a flat schematic diagram. Initially he’s unable to tolerate any loud or irregular sound at all, with the electric guitars and drums of bands like Led Zeppelin reduced to meaningless and arhythmic noise, but eventually his brain seems to compensate, with the result that he can now gain pleasure from music, even if it’s unclear how much of his pleasure is being derived from memory rather than present sensation.
Coleman sensibly alternates the chapters dealing with his deafness with accounts of growing up just outside Cambridge and the ridiculously intense nature of teenage boys’ dedication to progressive and otherwise non-radio friendly rock music in the early 70s. These sections are funny and touching, and Coleman has a real gift for describing both the sublime and ludicrous sides of an obsession with guitar bands. A particular highlight is his summary of the Rolling Stones “It’s Only Rock’n’Roll” single, which he accurately nails as shoddy and cynical, while at the same time declaring that he loves it so much he’d like it played at his funeral, while the passages that deal with his classical music loving father’s earnest but futile attempts to form an appreciation of his son’s new passion are really quite heartwarming. This is a lovely memoir, as well as an absorbing account of a man coming to terms with a distressing condition.