The Pompeii experience: in the loop

This weekend my wife and I went to see a public talk at the British Museum with Mary Beard, the famous Professor of Classics at Cambridge University and TV personality, and Robert Harris, author of the best-selling novel ‘Pompeii’, published in 2003. STAGETEXT provided live speech to text captioning of the evening’s event. This was the first time I had ever been to a public talk with live captioning, so I was curious to find out what it would be like. I was also seeing the exhibition called ‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ at the British Museum the following day and I wanted to find out what they had to say about the exhibition itself before I went.


My first impressions of the talk were that the live captioning worked really well and I could follow it easily. I was surprised that the hearing loops in the auditorium worked incredibly well when I switched my hearing aid to the T position. I was amazed that when I closed my eyes, I could hear the conversation between Mary and Robert very clearly, even with my eyes shut. Suddenly, I didn’t have to struggle to try and lip-read them from afar or have to rely on reading the live captioning as much. This was a revelation to me. I think I am so used to hearing loops in public buildings either not being switched on, not working properly or staff who work at these places not knowing how to use them. At first I used to become frustrated at this, but now it has become the norm for me.

It reminds me of my previous weekend at Hearing Link’s ‘Ear to the Ground’ event for deafened and hard of hearing people in Surrey. Rhiannon Barker from Hearing Link talked about this same widespread problem of hearing loops often not working in public buildings across the country and with staff often not being trained properly to use them. She urged the audience to campaign for change by complaining about it to their local supermarket or bank branch managers, and consider boycotting them if they don’t take any action to provide better hearing loops which work. I didn’t really realize how important it is to have hearing loops which work really well until I had experienced this really good one, which made me appreciate the difference and enhanced my whole hearing experience.

The discussion between Mary and Robert provided some amazing and at times very humorous insights into our continued fascination with Pompeii. They discussed how the exhibition is still very relevant to us all today because it puts human beings at the centre of the story. It focuses on the ordinary everyday lives of the estimated 12-15,000 people who lived in Pompeii before Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and destroyed an entire city with all its inhabitants in just twenty-four hours. Mary Beard commented that the rhythm of life is still the same today as it was then, and that is why the story has universal appeal. They talked at length about how such a simple everyday utility such as water became a powerful tool for the political elite Romans to control their people. Robert Harris described how pumping the water supply to its people via aqueducts was invented by the Romans, and that the powerful elite Romans used it as an extravagant commodity to display their wealth and power via elaborate gardens with beautiful fountains and water features.


The exhibition itself is full of everyday objects related to the life of the people of Pompeii in their homes, gardens, businesses, shops and streets. It is a fascinating insight into how people of all social classes lived cheek by jowl with one another in this city and shared their lives. The many excavated objects and images have been frozen in time by the disaster. Of all the objects exhibited, perhaps one of the most poignant and haunting for me is a carbonized baby’s crib, which still rocks on its rockers 2,000 years after it was last used. There are also many beautiful artefacts such as intricate mosaic tiles of animals and fish and beautiful jewellery and pictures, which have all remained perfectly intact over the centuries.


My personal highlight was being able to hear Mary Beard and Robert Harris’s voices clearly as they discussed what life was like in Pompeii before the disaster struck 2,000 years ago in a way which I didn’t believe was now accessible to me as a hard of hearing person. This was a result of the excellent hearing loop technology, in combination with the live speech-to-text captioning. It gave me some fascinating insights into the human focus of the exhibition, which I appreciated fully when I saw it myself.


Subtitles don’t distract

Finding a film we both want to watch is enough of a challenge, but then trying to find a film that is going to be subtitled and shown at a convenient day of the week and suitable time for my wife and I is proving to be a bit of a headache. Last Saturday for instance, we wanted to watch ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ with Ryan Gosling in it. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a cinema in London, which was showing it with subtitles that day. After checking out cinema listings for subtitled films on we found that the only cinema in London showing that film was the Curzon cinema in Soho the following Tuesday at 6pm. This wasn’t ideal since my wife would have to get out of work early to see it, but we really wanted to see it. We were a bit shocked at the price too, having to pay almost £25 for two tickets, but since there wasn’t any alternative, we went ahead and booked the tickets.

When I got to the cinema, it was really busy. We hadn’t expected that many people to go to a subtitled film, but we were pleasantly surprised. While I was waiting for my wife Joanna to arrive, I spoke to someone who worked at the Box Office. I told him I was surprised to see so many people there for a subtitled film, and he said that it was always busy there. I expect this has a lot to do with its location in the heart of Soho and the cinema itself is also really welcoming. It is like an old-fashioned cinema with a cosy lounge bar with comfy armchairs and sofas. It seemed a pleasant environment to relax and have a drink in, much more pleasant than the soulless atmosphere you get in your usual multiplex. They even let you take your glass of wine or beer into the cinema with you to watch the film.

The cinema screen itself was packed inside. I saw a few BSL users there but it seemed like the majority of people there were hearing people, who looked like they’d just come from work or were catching up with their friends.

I thought it was a brilliant film. It was directed by Derek Cianfrance, who also directed ‘Blue Valentine’. I had see Ryan Gosling acting in ‘Drive’ before and I thought the role he played in this film was similar. The cinematography was visually stunning. The film was a powerful and deeply haunting story about parenthood, corruption, relationships and social class. Ryan Gosling acted the role of the cool outlaw motorbike rider and bank robber very convincingly and honestly, as did Bradley Cooper as Avery, the ambitious rookie cop who became a hero.

After the film, Joanna and I had a quick drink at the cinema bar. We chatted to a group of hearing people who had just seen the film too. I asked them whether they knew beforehand that the film was going to be subtitled. They said that they were told when they bought the tickets. I asked them if they found the subtitles distracting, and they said that they didn’t. They told me that they enjoyed it so much because it’s such a nice cinema and you can relax and have a drink there.

I hope that in the future there will be more choice of subtitled films in the cinemas shown at more suitable times and days of the week and at cheaper prices, making the whole cinema experience more accessible for all.

ImageCurzon cinema

James McAvoy and Macbeth – increased accessibility for all

Last Monday night my wife and I went to see ‘Macbeth’ starring James McAvoy at the Trafalgar Studios theatre in Central London. This performance had live captioning provided by Stagetext. My friend Lidia got us the tickets, so I’m really grateful to her for that, particularly as these are really hot tickets at the moment, and according to my wife, the play has received rave reviews. This was the first time that I had actually been to the theatre since I lost my hearing three years ago and the first time that I had ever been to a captioned performance.

It was incredibly popular as people were queuing right down the street to get in and it was difficult to even get through the door with the amount of people blocking the entrance. The theatre itself was very intimate, with only 400 seats and the audience really close to the stage. In fact, some of the seats were actually on the stage and right behind the action, so we all felt like we were really connected with the action.

I was interested to see whether the Stagetext captioning would help me follow the play as obviously the dialogue is in Shakespearian English with strong Scottish accents. But I was very impressed! After I got used to glancing up at the captioned text above the performance with a hearing loop provided to me, I found I could follow the plot fairly well. I think that even if you don’t have a hearing loss, Macbeth would be fairly difficult to follow due to the language and Scottish accents.

The production itself was a very contemporary, energetic adaptation of Macbeth. It was gritty and gory with lots of blood everywhere, and the setting felt like I was in the middle of a Mad Max film. I thought that James McAvoy acted the role of Macbeth brilliantly as did Claire Foy as Lady Macbeth, although perhaps she over-acted a bit at times. The atmosphere felt increasingly claustrophobic throughout the drama, especially when Macbeth vomited, bled or spat on the stage during the action.

Afterwards, my wife and I had a quick drink in a local pub to discuss it. Joanna, my wife, told me that as a hearing person, she found the captions enhanced the performance. She thought that by reading the captioned text, she could follow the difficult dialogue easier than just relying on hearing it being spoken by the actors. We both agreed that in this respect, the captioning by Stagetext made the Macbeth performance more accessible for everyone, and not just deaf or hard of hearing people. The tickets were also really cheap, making it affordable and therefore more accessible to all. We are now looking forward to seeing more theatre productions with captioning in the future as this has now broken down another barrier for me to enjoy the theatre again.







A Deaf Day to remember

Last Saturday I represented Action on Hearing Loss at City Lit’s Deaf Day, the biggest deaf-related event in the UK. This is an annual event, attended by almost 2,000 members of the public and this year, there were 60 exhibitors there, including Action on Hearing Loss. There were also various workshops and entertainment events happening throughout the day too.

This was the first time that I had worked at this annual event. It was incredibly busy and very popular. I was struck by how many different types of exhibitors there were, represented by people from all ages and backgrounds. They were all there, from Hearing Dogs to charities, travel companies for deaf people, speech to text and media captioning companies. There was even a BSL martial arts comic there, with young people dressed in martial arts costumes going around demonstrating various combat-like poses for the camera.

I really enjoyed working on the Action on Hearing Loss stand. I was kept really busy all day dealing with lots of enquiries. Most of the people who came up to the stand to talk to us were Deaf people who used BSL as their main form of communication, so I was really glad that we had two BSL interpreters to help, although I really tried to communicate in BSL myself. I found that at the beginning of the day, I felt rather unconfident about my BSL skills and how I would be able to cope communicating in BSL. However, over the course of the day, I found that my receptive skills improved. Also, I thought that people would dismiss me as soon as they found out that I couldn’t communicate fluently in BSL, but I found that although there were a few who lost patience with me, the majority of people were just pleased that I had made the effort to try to communicate with them in BSL.

I also enjoyed meeting new people during the day, getting to know them a bit, sharing our experiences of living with hearing loss and trying to help people in some way. We showed the people who came to our stand a range of products that Action on Hearing Loss provides to help people living with acquired hearing loss, such as specially amplified phones, vibrating doorbells, alarms and smoke alarms. One lady told me that she worked for a charity, which helped elderly people who were losing their hearing and often their sight too. They often have difficulty seeing the numbers on the phones, have arthritis in their fingers and are also often not very technically aware, so the products need to be as simple as possible to use and not too technical. I agreed with her because I know from my own experience in my voluntary work how important these phones are to elderly people. They can act as a lifeline to people who are losing their hearing and find it difficult to talk on the phone to their families and friends.

After the event, I felt really tired after a long but very interesting and productive day. I went to a local café nearby with Joanna and my friend Andrew for a drink and early dinner to discuss the day. The place was really lively. I was amazed that about half the people there looked like they had just come from Deaf Day too. They were signing and socialising with their friends, which was an amazing sight to see. They were also queuing outside the local pubs, with the area buzzing with people signing away to each other. I was happy that it had been such a positive, inspirational and social day for lots of people.



My talk

I began writing about my experience of hearing loss with my wife last year. It took us about three months to write it down as I had never written anything so personal before. The experience of writing it brought back difficult memories for both of us, but it was also therapeutic, so that I could finally move on.

When it was finished, my step-brother Ian asked me if he could read my story. Ian works as an ENT doctor at St Thomas’s hospital in London. I was very reluctant at first but finally I agreed to send him a copy. Ian told me that he had really enjoyed reading it, as it was incredibly honest and an insight into what it really feels like to lose your hearing. He asked me if I would be prepared to give it as a talk to some audiologists at Guy’s & St Thomas’s Hospital. I wasn’t sure as I had never done any public speaking before, but after much persuasion, I finally agreed and I went with my wife Joanna to St Thomas’s in December last year.

I gave my talk to a group of fifteen audiologists and audiology students. I was incredibly nervous but after I had finished speaking, I got a really good response and the audiologists asked me lots of questions. I was really happy that the talk had been so well received and I thought that would be the end of it. However, a few days later, an audiology student who had been present there, Rebecca, emailed me, telling me that it had opened her eyes to the deeply emotional impact, not only on people who lose their hearing, but also on the people around them. She went on to tell me that afterwards, she felt inspired to do the best job she could for all her patients. Rebecca’s words made me realise that through my talks, I might be able to highlight the emotional impact of hearing loss and hopefully raise deaf awareness among the general public.

I decided to send my talk to Steve, my Volunteer Manager at Action on Hearing Loss. Steve and the rest of the staff there told me how much they had enjoyed reading it as they had seen a big change in me since I first went to see them for help three years ago when I lost my hearing and felt scared and isolated. After a lot of help from Steve and Christy, who has supported me and helped me deliver my talk, I have now given it to a wide range of groups, from Rotary Clubs to health professionals and schoolchildren. I can see that people are really engaged by it and inspired, which I never believed would happen, and I always get lots of questions about it afterwards.

The biggest talk I gave recently was to five hundred schoolchildren at their Disability Awareness Day. Christy didn’t tell me how many children would be there and when I found out, I was petrified! I could feel my heart pounding and I was extremely nervous and shaking. When I had finished it though, I had a real buzz as I could see that the children had enjoyed listening to it and they asked me lots of questions afterwards.

Sometimes I have dark days, but then I’ll read my script back and realise how far I’ve come. I’ll take my dog Jake for a walk in Epping Forest and the dark clouds will suddenly disappear. It has made me appreciate how lucky I am and how important it is to live in the present moment. I’m still hard of hearing, but I feel much more like my old self again.