- March 1, 2016
Many, many years ago, back in the dark ages of my youth I lived in Battersea in a hall of residence dedicated to the comfort of London’s art students. The Ralph West Hall of residence was an undistinguished late twentieth century edifice of little architectural merit but with plenty of other benefits. It overlooked from one side Battersea park, was a short walk from the Kings Road and that was accessed by crossing the very beautiful Albert Bridge.
The Albert Bridge by day was a joy to look at and had signs directing that marching troops should break step as they crossed. We all loved that. But more so we loved how it looked at night, bedecked in lights that sparkled and reflected prettily in the then slightly murky waters of old father Thames.
Back then I had a girlfriend, yes, you read that right. She was lovely, really smart and very talented but with one terrible problem, her eyesight. Her eyesight was not only bad, it was rapidly deteriorating and would eventually leave her blind. It was of course terribly sad as she was a talented artist – but it did give her a heightened sense of the things around her.
One night we were walking into Chelsea and I asked her why she didn’t wear her glasses. Her reply was so perfect. We were half way across Albert Bridge and she stopped and told me to half close my eyes. “Look at that, look at how beautiful it is, that’s what I see and it’s so much prettier then when I have my glasses on. That’s what I see, a prettier world.” It was a very moving moment and as you can see, one that I will never forget.
From time to time I think about her and I half close my eyes and take a look at what was her vision of a more beautiful world.
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to see some very pretty ballet. I love traditional Russian ballet, done in period style, all sugary white and sparkling, and I squinted at the spectacle to see it in that wonderful slightly blurred way that makes everything look even more sparklingly special. It worked, it looked magical and it reminded me of that lovely young woman and her special way of looking at the world and dealing with her failing vision.
That night at the ballet I was moved by the dancing but not moved by the orchestra, well moved to tears but for all the wrong reasons. Whilst the dancers were exquisite that band were not. There was something very wrong in the orchestra pit. The strings, whilst led by an excellent principal violin, had what could only be described as tuning issues. The horns were worse, wobbly at best and from time to time the leg fell right off that wobble.
It was at that moment that I realised that the human body, which can do so many wonderful things, cannot do one that would be so useful. You can squint your eyes – but you cannot squint your ears.
How wonderful would it be if we could squint our ears and soften the harsh aural edges of a world that sometimes does not measure up to our expectations. Imagine having the ability to add a filter to the sounds that offend our ears. You could soften out people who cannot help but shout. You could take the anger out of an aggressive verbal assault and for me, I could soften the offence of a poorly tuned fiddle.
I hope that all of this has not made you think that I would assume to have a perfect ear or perfect pitch. I’m sure I do not. But I can hear when something is off key and it hurts. That night my ears were close to bleeding with the discomfort caused by a wonky violin and troubled trumpet. Yes, okay, I’m exaggerating of course, but just imagine the joy of being able to physically filter what we hear. Your eyes, well you can shut them, close off the things that offend. But your ears, well they don’t even come with an effective volume control, they don’t even come with an on off switch. Yes the body is a thing of great beauty and ability but not without one or two shortcomings.
Mine is doing okay, I mean it’s still standing, a bit larger than I would like and a lot larger than my doctor would advise, but it functions pretty well for all that, creakily but not desperate yet.
And the ear thing, well to be honest, I wouldn’t want to blur most of what I listen to, I love the sounds that surround me. And the orchestra, well it might no have been the best I have had the pleasure to listen to but I have been very lucky in my work to have heard some of the best in the world. Others have been less fortunate and this excellent touring company takes great classical ballet to parts of the world where seeing the major companies might not be physically or financially possible.
That night my ears prompted this odd line of thinking but it also reminded me of that very special person whose outlook, an odd word in the circumstances, made sense of a world that for her was going to cruelly restricted. Squinty eyes, a useful quirk of nature, squinty ears, well perhaps not as necessary or desirable as I might have suggested. Have I made myself clear?