I once tuned in to Any Questions and heard Lord Chalfont saying: ‘I can’t say I’m attracted to pibroch music.’ I know the feeling. I spent five years in Scotland surrounded by people trying to learn to play the bagpipes. I even spent a term trying to learn myself, out of curiosity, and found out that you can’t even play all the notes of the scale on the pipe. No wonder they all go red in the face.
‘The sound they produce is outlandish and, to my ears, unmusical,’ continued the censorious Lord. ‘And to be quite honest, I can’t really see the point of the way they dress up in their slightly ridiculous uniforms, except as a way of drawing attention to themselves.’ Actually, the kilt, which I had to wear from time to time, is not half a bad garment, nice and free and easy; good to dance in, too, as I was later to find out. I just think that Scotland is the wrong country for it, as it is so obviously a hot climate piece of dress. But as far as the rest of the clobber was concerned, all the sashes, feathers and things that people get up in to play the pipes, yes, I agreed with him there.
‘And I think it’s just plain daft,’ concluded Chalfont, ‘the way they dye their spiky hair blonde and put safety pins through their noses.’ This left me in mid-air without an aeroplane. What was he talking about? What kind of rebel pibroch bands had he been listening to? Or had he finally gone round the twist? ‘No,’ he summed up, ‘I don’t like punk rock music.’
Blimey, I had misheard punk rock as pibroch. There couldn’t be two kinds of music more different, and yet I had accepted what he said about one as applying equally well to the other. What kind of intellectual was I?
Well, the normal kind of intellectual actually, because I immediately set out sorting out the facts to fit in with my ideas and came to the conclusion that pibroch is as objectionable as punk music when we normally hear it: that is, when we don’t want to. Music is pumped at us in all sorts of circumstances when it is not natural to hear music – in lifts, railway stations, pubs, hotel lobbies, aeroplanes – and the effect on me is to turn me from an inoffensive, early middle-aged, wishy washy liberal into an apoplectic old colonel. I know, I know, this is not a new complaint.
I once wrote to the Station Master of Waterloo – Area Manager, he’s called now – to object violently to the loud music relayed through his otherwise quite pleasant terminus, echoing round the roof like some bad 1930s sound-track. He wrote back, noting my determination to travel only northward by trains until he reversed his policy on Southern Region, and stating his belief that most people seemed to like it.
He’s quite wrong. Most people don’t notice it, any more than they notice the colour of wall-paint or the smell of car fumes. Most people don’t notice it, because they don’t even like music particularly. Thomas Beecham said: ‘The British don’t like music, but they love the noise it makes.’ In similar vein, Robert Morley remembers how as a child, he was wheeled by his nanny along the sea-front at Folkestone, down a stretch where you can hear simultaneously two brass bands on the promenade playing quite different compositions. ‘Don’t talk to me about discos,’ he concluded, ‘I have heard the real thing.’
The only explanation for the bombardment of pre-recorded music is that it has become another soft drug; people reach out for it in the same way that they reach for another filter cigarette, that is, without thinking. It is an audible sleeping tablet, or perhaps a light stimulant. What they don’t do is listen to it. The only people who listen to it are people who are interested in music and they are the very ones who dislike it, because they notice the vacuousness of it.
The odd thing is that things sounded perfectly nice before canned music came along. The rattle of conversation and laughter, chinking and drinking, in an English pub forms a very pleasant background noise. The sounds made in a restaurant, by knives and forks, by bottles pouring, by waiters dropping twenty plates just inside the kitchen and the rest of the staff laughing at him, are perfectly adequate without the addition of Somebody’s Silver Strings. And I actively like the noise of a railway station: the going and coming of trains, the banging of doors, crashing of trolleys, the quiet calm of a porter leaning on a trolley marked For Passenger Use Only, the ricocheting of all these sounds round the roof. Why smother it in canned music? For the same reason that the British like smothering their food in bottled sauce?
I remember once hearing a play on BBC radio set in a family house whose mother was deaf and yet who was a tremendously placid and contented soul. Then one day she found a course of treatment which cured her deafness. For the first time she realized what a contentious and embittered lot her family were – arguments, complaints and backstabbing all day long. Her placidity vanished the more she had to listen to it all, until one day she voluntarily gave up her treatment and relapsed into a contented deafness.
I know how she feels. I had a slight ear infection last week which left my hearing very muffled. At last I could walk down Oxford Street without hearing the flashy denim funk coming out of every jeans shop. I could go to my hairdresser without being too conscious of Capitol Radio and travel by train without hearing the drip drip drip of drums coming out of the badly named personal stereo systems. I even thought of paying a sentimental, unhearing trip to Waterloo Station for old time’s sake.
It’s cleared up now. Pity. Another few months and I could have avoided the tinny recording of Christmas carols blasting out of Kensington High Street. Meanwhile, I am reminded of the words of the scientist who recently analysed the contents of the River Rhine and found it tremendously polluted. ‘So the water of the Rhine is now unsafe?’ the interviewer asked him. The expert hesitated. ‘Actually, there are so many chemicals in the river that scientifically speaking you can’t really describe its contents as water at all.’ Artistically speaking, I don’t think you can describe the contents of most loudspeakers as music at all. I just wish it didn’t have to drip into my ears and cause brain infection.