On a strange barren strip of coast in Kent, next to a nuclear power station and a lighthouse and a Napoleonic roundhouse, stand the most extraordinary structures.
They call them listening ears.
They are fashioned like something HG Wells would conceive: great concrete sound reflecting dishes, cocked towards the sea with the gravity, but not the good humour, of the Moai Men of Easter Island.
They loom. They tower, inhuman yet not entirely insensible, on that barren coast built of shale.
They are no longer of any use. They were built during the twenties and thirties to listen out for enemy aircraft. They worked like a vast ear-trumpet, collecting sound waves, the first to reverberate with the testy growl of enemy aircraft.
But then someone invented radar. And the Listening Ears became a curiosity. something over which men have wondered ever since.
Like the great ear-trumpet, the smaller ones have been superceded by modern technology.
I once taught at a school where some of the children were hearing impaired. They wore hearing aids, and all their teachers wore little transmitters round their necks. Your voice went straight to the child with no interruption: background noise could not interfere.
But it was as well to remember to turn them off when you weren’t teaching.
My friend left hers on by mistake.She was desperate for the toilet, hadn’t had a chance to go at break time. She set the children off on a task, put a learning assistant in charge and then fled .
An eventful three minutes later she arrived back to find the children in paroxysms of mirth.
She had just broadcast her own personal fly-on-the-wall documentary. It needed no commentary. Her charges were helpless with giggles.
If only Beethoven had such gadgets. The pianos in his house were mutilated, mauled things towards the end, as Ludwig’s hearing grew progressively worse, and the music seemed every more distant with every day.
But Beethoven had a friend to help him. One who designed custom-made ear trumpets.
His name was Johann Nepomuk Målzel.
He did not invent them, gracious no: the Romans and Greeks wrote of such contraptions, and there’s a 12th century mediaeval miniature in the French National Library showing King Arthur with one.
Yet in the Beethoven Museum in Bonn, the ear trumpets are there to see: bizarre steampunk sound-catchers, not just the traditional horn shale but one which looks like a salt and pepper shaker, and another which resembles nothing more than a bucket hanging on a horn.
The man responsible for these sound-catchers was not so much a solid scientific physician as a showman and a fly-by-night. A potential anti-hero for the perfect steampunk novel, Johann Nepomuk Målzel has some creditable inventions like a serviceable metronome to his name, alongside a crazy sideshow of automata.
Beethoven was drawn to one such: the panharmonicon.
A great mammoth of an instrument, it played all the instruments of a military band at the imperious wheeze of a bellows. Not only that, but it could imitate gunshot and cannon. It toured for 12 years, amazing audiences across the world.
What great composer could resist such an audacious sideshow?
For the man who made his ear trumpets, there must be a special relationship. And Beethoven’s 91st work – made to celebrate Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813 – was composed for the panharmonicon.
Whenever I listen to it, it makes me chuckle. A veritable medley of show tunes to show the inventor’s work off to its advantage. A bit disjointed, but when it is played on the modern wonder of the world, that famous panharmonicon, how can it fail to dazzle?
I am relieved I never heard it with the original instrumentation.
It would be enough to make one throw away the ear trumpet.