A few years ago I was slumped in a seat on a Northern line tube train bumbling its way through London’s bowels when a rather shaggy-looking man of about my own age who was sitting opposite me suddenly hunkered forward and began: “You won’t remember me, but–”
“I do,” I interjected. “I do remember you, because you’re the guy who pierced my ear in Walberswick in Suffolk, in the summer of 1978.” Whether or not his recollection of me had been summoned by one or other of my mediatisations during the intervening 35 years, mine of him came as readily as a card forced from the shuffled pack of memory by a master sharp: he’d been a shaggy-looking teenager, a belated hippie to my precocious punk, and he’d plied needle, cork and butane lighter fuel with great dispatch. I’d had complete confidence; for beneath his luxuriant curls his own ears were festooned with so many rings they cried out for miniature shower curtains to be hung from them. Yes: all this is by way of saying – as we continue around the tortuous whorls of this era of the auricular – I am of that generation who made ear piercings for men (and multiple ones for women) de rigueur. Ear piercings – and, along with them, earphones, for the first Sony Walkman was released the year after my bucolical lug-punching. In fact, the timing was providential if not exactly serendipitous, because the reason my piercer’s physiognomy had been etched into my memory was that the lug concerned became flamboyantly infected soon after the amateurish operation – and remained that way for almost a whole year. Indeed, there was a point when the hard ball of pus in the lobe was so large I must have resembled one of those traditional people whose body modification consists in just such distensions and distortions of their floppy bits.
Either that, or perhaps my infected ear was a harbinger of our own era, when the cumbersome earphones (or, in sensu stricto, head ones) of the past have been fully implanted in our ear canals. I kept on with earrings into my mid-20s: the shaggy lad’s efforts doubled the number of holes available to me, and my favourite adornment became – rather than a shower curtain – a pair of silver studs shaped like two little taps. However, I always blew hot and cold when it came to sporting earrings, and at some point my desire not to be fingered on sight as someone sub-cultural outweighed my love of personal adornment.
Nowadays, my ears are naked save for that thick filigree of hair that’s a function of not seeing a barber on a regular basis – that, and of course the twin elasticated loops of the plain, surgical-style mask I favour when I enter the local shop, or any other of the limited number of interiors that have been open to me in the past year or so. As someone with a serious underlying health condition in the so-called “shield category”, I’ve taken a pretty acute interest in others’ ears, though – often having to restrain myself from bellowing into them: “Why don’t you wear a fucking mask?! Don’t you know there’s a pandemic on?” Thereby channelling this atavism: my inner-air-raid-warden – although with the transposition that they instructed you to put your lights out; I want to order mouths to be shut up.
Anyway, whether queuing for the till, or stripping-the-infectious-willow as I stroll along the crowded pavements typical of my south London neighbourhood, my eyes cannot help travelling from the mouth to the ear of pretty much everyone they clap on to. How, I muse, are these people managing that bane of my own pandemic life: the inevitable confusion of mask loops and spectacle arms, which time and again finds me misting up in the fresh produce aisle as I struggle to untangle the entire ear-borne assemblage? Thank God I’m not also sporting not just two earrings or studs in one lobe, but the multiple piercings so often affected by those younger than me. (And, down my way, older as well.)
There’s this, and there are also the aforementioned earphones that, over the years, have mutated – or possibly evolved – into a great profusion of shapes and styles. Buds, they call them – whether dangling from the human tree by a filamentary branch, or wireless. But this seems too fructuous to me: they don’t really resemble buds, these earphones, but rather anything from miniature – and disturbingly symmetrical – rabbit’s ears to the sort of blue-light-winking techno-plug gizmo Lieutenant Uhura sported in the original 1960s Star Trek. OK, I don’t want to come across as even more of an-old-man-shaking-his-fist-at-the-cloud than I am (although frankly, this would be difficult), but I have to confess: I haven’t got used to hands-free mobile-phone callers in the 25 years since I first witnessed them on a trip to Stockholm, where early-adopting Swedish Nokia-heads were striding around the airport precincts apparently either soliloquising or possibly praying aloud to some numinous Norse god.
So, while I may admire the ear as the venue for a new kind of fashion show, where loops of cloth in a bewildering variety of patterns, colours and tensions parenthesise these, the most externally intricate of the human sense organs, I can’t say I love it in its contemporary guise. No, give me the ear au naturel, sitting like a raw oyster on its bony platter: for a beautiful ear in all its complicated involutions, somewhat paradoxically – and, for now, inopportunely – cries out to be touched; although not with a needle that’s been “sterilised” in a candle flame.