‘Our descent into utter barbarism’

You’ve got to love the comment section over at Slipped Disc. One of today’s posts is titled, ‘To the jerk who shushed me in mid-concert’. Lebrecht tells of an audience member who shushed him for quietly opening the programme mid-performance, only for said audience member to later yawn carelessly, in an act of bold hypocrisy. Lebrecht asks, ‘What perplexes me is why jerks like this go to concerts, or half-concerts. Is it only for the dubious satisfaction of shushing others who are actually enjoying themselves?’

Following from this, one commenter suggests for fellow readers to seek out Julian Barnes’ short-story Vigilance. Well, I found the collection of short stories — The Lemon Table — in the library and started reading it. And what delightful, sinister fun it is.

An ageing man is increasingly disgruntled by audience behaviour. His chief complaint is, of course, unstifled coughing. At first the irritation is mild. He is grateful, at least, that people don’t fart raucously during Mozart. ‘So I suppose,’ he remarks, ‘a few vestiges of the thin crust of civilisation which prevents our descent into utter barbarism are just about holding’.

But one can obviously tell that his anger is already at an agitated simmer. He starts devising methods to improve or dissuade bad audience behaviour. He tries handing out cough sweets, but either the wrappers would make a noise or no one would take unwrapped ones. Then he pretended to be an usher so he could confront audience members, telling them that coughing during Mozart is like gobbing on the Rokeby Venus, or else falling back on coarse name-calling. His revenge just gets meaner and meaner. At one point he fantasises about electric shocks in each seat that would correspond to the decibel level of the cough. (My personal fantasy has always been snipers in the balconies — non-lethal, of course.) His partner is right, however, to note that audience members in pain might mean even louder audience members. You just can’t win.

Sadly, the disgruntled audience member ends up being the more evil party. Lebrecht in his post comes dangerously close to this himself when he writes, ‘I could have made a call this morning and found out the offender’s name, but why bother?’

I’m not claiming to be a perfect audience member. Yes, I never cough, and I’ve never sneezed, and I don’t wear those scratchy puffy raincoats that magnify the volume of every twitch a hundredfold. But I’m not always perfectly still, usually suffering from neck ache that forces me to sharply jerk my head side to side, like a pigeon, which results in a small clicking sound from my bones (though perhaps only audible to me). I also was once horribly ashamed of myself for slouching over the railing to get a better view, taking far too long to realise I was obscuring the view of the old chap next to me.

However, the lesson from the story is that one must try one’s utmost to be a good audience member. Or else you’ll end up with some mad sexagenarian hovering over you, pretending to be an usher, who whispers into your ear, ‘what’s it like, being an utterly selfish berk?