Staying recently in a South Yorkshire town called Rotherham—described in one guidebook as “murky,” an inadequate word for the place—I was interested to read in the local newspaper how the proprietors of some stores are preventing hooligans from gathering outside to intimidate and rob customers. They play Bach over loudspeakers, and this disperses the youths in short order; they flee the way Count Dracula fled before holy water, garlic flowers, and crucifixes. The proprietors had previously tried a high-pitched noise generator whose mosquito-like whine only those younger than 20 could detect. This method, too, proved effective, but the owners abandoned it out of fear that it might damage the youths’ hearing and infringe upon their human rights, leading to claims for compensation.
There is surely something deeply emblematic about the use of one of the great glories of Western civilization, the music of Bach, to prevent the young inheritors of that civilization from committing crimes. The barbarians are well and truly within the gates. However, in these dark times it is best to look on the bright side. Our prime minister, Gordon Brown, has told us that we must expect crime to rise along with unemployment (which has already reached more than 13 percent of the labor force, if one takes into account those whom the government dishonestly counts as sick). If proprietors all over the country follow Rotherham’s lead, therefore, we may hear much more Bach, and less rock music, than we did previously. Hegel was right when he said that the owl of Minerva flies by night.
The Rotherham example, incidentally, bears out a story told by the great Belgian Sinologist, Simon Leys, in his recent book of exquisite short essays, Le bonheur des petits poissons. Leys was sitting in a café where other customers were chatting, playing cards, or having a drink. The radio was on, tuned to a station that relayed idle chatter and banal popular music (you are lucky these days if popular music is banal only). But suddenly, and for no apparent reason, it played the first movement of Mozart’s clarinet quintet, transforming the café into what Leys called “the antechamber of paradise.” The customers stopped what they were doing, as if startled. Then one of them stood up, went over to the radio, and tuned it to another station, restoring the idle chatter and banal music. There was general relief, as if everyone felt that the beauty and refinement of Mozart were a reproach to their lives to which they could respond only by suppressing Mozart.
I sympathize with the criminal youths of Rotherham for reacting to Bach in a similar way. Any other response would be too unbearably painful for them. Rotherham boasts a lot of fine early nineteenth-century architecture (and even a very fine fifteenth-century church), but everything has been overwhelmed, dwarfed, and ruined by highways and brutalist concrete buildings of surreal hideousness, many of them municipal and all of them erected with municipal consent. If the powerful do not care about the world, why should the powerless?