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New Life in Old Ears – The Rit Fal Dal Effect

I experienced a strange sensory assault when I went back to India at the age of 20 as a York University student, having lived there as a child until the age of 4. Strange because the distinctive “new” smells and tastes I came across, like rose-flavoured lassi, were not actually new to me at all, but had lain undisturbed in some long unused part of the brain to the point where I had forgotten that I knew them. It’s hard to capture in words the sensation of discovering something already familiar in what purports to be new. But it was exciting.

42 years later I’ve just had a similar experience, with the overdue fitting of a pair of NHS hearing aids in Ospadal Uibhist agus Bharraigh. (“Overdue” in the sense that I should probably have sought help years ago. I have “moderate to severe” hearing loss at higher frequencies, like my dad before me – and his dad before him. This means it’s difficult for me to hear the difference between language sounds whose distinctiveness is evidenced at the upper end of a vocal spectrogram – like voiceless th and s, for example, in “thing” and “sing”.)

Even as the audiologist was still talking me through the fitting process, I found myself “rediscovering” that the word “still” does indeed start with an s. Of course, this is something that, conceptually, I “knew”. It’s just that the brain, which is a very clever piece of kit when it comes to dealing with language, had disguised from me that my failing ears were no longer picking up important distinctions, by using the redundancy which characterises all language to supply a best guess, usually accurate, at which sound I should be hearing, and allowing me to “think” that I actually had. So, although I wasn’t physically hearing a clear s, nine times out of ten I probably thought I was (if I thought about it at all). Quite disconcerting then, in a pleasant kind of way, to be confronted with the evidence of a “real” s exactly where you’d expect it, and the realisation that the sound I had thought was always there had only been supplied to me by my own imagination.

Add to that linguistic complexity the simple pleasures of clocking the starlings twittering away as soon as I walked out of the hospital, or noticing for the first time in a long while the range of sounds your shoes make when they scuff the doormat when you get home. It’s quite an intoxicating auditory brew. And, as with my earlier Indian experience and the way it rekindled memories from infancy, so again I found myself reminded of an earlier period of my life, when hearing the sound of birdsong was an unexceptional experience. I hadn’t particularly noticed its absence, but again there was something very refreshing about this reacquaintance with a familiar thing.

Then in a moment of serendipity, just as I was pondering this strange coming together of revived sensory perception and uncovered self-deception and its capacity to stimulate vivid reminiscence, and wondering if there was a name for it, Jon Blake went and revealed a hitherto unheard 40-year old recording of the Rit Fal Dals, the folk group that he and I and Chris Heron sang and played in when we were all students at York… And not just a recording – he also had 40-year old photos of the band and the city, which – as you do – he’d put together into a nice wee picture sequence on YouTube. A man of many talents. The hits have since been pouring in from the York Past & Present Facebook group, and probably other sources too. It seems I’m not alone in taking delight in recovering remembered but repressed sounds or sights.

(Jon has some other Rit Fal Dal tracks from the same recording session on his Soundcloud site.)

So can anyone help me out here? Is there a name for this syndrome, in which revived or remembered sensations stimulate forgotten memories, simultaneously affirming the enriching power of your sensory capacities while exposing their liability to wither, conceal and deceive? Until someone points me to a higher authority, I claim its discovery (or perhaps invention) and name it the Rit Fal Dal Effect… Ta dah!

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