The Organ Nuisance And Its Remedy by Charles Lever

Story type: Essay

There is scarcely any better measure of the amount of comfort a man enjoys than in the sort of things of which he makes grievances. When the princess in the Eastern story passed a restless night on account of the rumpled rose-leaf she lay on, the inference is, that she was not, like another character of fiction, accustomed to “lie upon straw.”

Thus thinking, I was led to speculate on what a happy people must inhabit the British Islands, seeing the amount of indignation and newspaper wrath bestowed upon what is called the Organ Nuisance. Now, granting that it is not always agreeable to have a nasal version of the march in ‘William Tell,’ ‘Home, sweet Home,’ or ‘La Donna e mobile,’ under one’s window at meal-times, in the hours of work, or the darker hours of headache, surely the nation which cries aloud over this as a national calamity must enjoy no common share of Fortune’s favour, and have what the Yankees call a “fine time” here below.

Scarcely a week, however, goes over without one of these persecutors of British ears being brought up to justice, and some dreary penny-a-liner appears to prosecute in the person of a gentleman of literary pursuits, whose labours, like those of Mr Babbage, may be lost to the world, if the law will not hunt down the organs, and cry “Tally high-ho” to the “grinders.”

It might be grave matter of inquiry whether the passing annoyance of ‘Cherry ripe’ was not a smaller infliction than some of the tiresome lucubrations it has helped to muddle; and I half fancy I’d as soon listen to the thunder as drink the small beer it has soured into vinegar.

However, as the British Public is resolved on making it a grievance, and as some distinguished statesman has deemed it worth his while to devise a bill for its suppression, it is in vain to deny that the evil is one of magnitude. England has declared she will not be ground down by the Savoyard, and there is no more to be said of it.

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A great authority in matters of evasion once protested that he would engage to drive a coach-and-six through any Act of Parliament that ever was framed, and I believe him. So certain is language to be too wide or too narrow–to embrace too much, and consequently fail in distinctness, or to include too little, and so defeat the attempt to particularise–that it does not call for more than an ordinary amount of acuteness to detect the flaws of such legislation. Then, when it comes to a discussion, and amendments are moved, and some honourable gentleman suggests that after the word “Whereas” in section 93 the clause should run “in no case, save in those to be hereafter specified,” etc., there comes a degree of confusion and obscurity that invariably renders the original parent of the measure unable to know his offspring, and probably intently determined to destroy it. That in their eagerness for law-making the context of these bills is occasionally overlooked, one may learn from the case of an Irish measure where a fine was awarded as the punishment of a particular misdemeanour, and the Act declared that one-half of the sum should go to the county, one-half to the informer. Parliament, however, altered the law, but overlooked the context. Imprisonment with hard labour was decreed as the penalty of the offence, and the clause remained–“one-half to the county, one-half to the informer.”

A Judge of no mean acuteness, the Chief Baron O’Grady, once declared, with respect to an Act against sheep-stealing, that after two careful readings he could not decide whether the penalties applied to the owner, of the sheep, the thief, or the sheep itself, for that each interpretation might be argumentatively sustained.

How will you suppress the organ-grinder after this? What are the limits of a man’s domicile? How much of the coast does he own beyond his area-railings? Is No. 48 to be deprived of the ‘Hat-catcher’s Daughter’ because 47 is dyspeptic? Are the maids in 32 not to be cheered by ‘Sich a gettin’ up stairs’ because there is a nervous invalid in 33? How long may an organ-man linger in front of a residence to tune or adjust his barrels–the dreariest of all discords? Can legislation determine how long or how loud the grand chorus in ‘Nabucco’ should be performed? What endless litigation will be instituted by any attempt to provide for all these and a score more of similar casualties, not to speak of the insolent persecution that may be practised by the performance of tunes of a party character. Fancy Dr Wiseman composing a pastoral to the air of ‘Croppies, lie down,’ or the Danish Minister writing a despatch to the inspiriting strains of ‘Schleswig-Holstein meer-umschlungen.’ There might come a time, too, when ‘Sie sollen ihm nicht haben’ might grate on a French ambassador’s ears. Can your Act take cognisance of all these?

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I see nothing but inextricable confusion in the attempt–confusion, difficulty, and defeat. There will be an Act, and an Act to amend that Act, and another Act to alter so much of such an Act, and then a final Act to repeal them all; so that at last the mover of a bill on the subject will be the greatest “organ nuisance” that the world has yet heard of.

It was “much reflecting” over these things, as my Lord Brougham says, that I sauntered along the Riviera from Genoa, and came to the little town of Chiavari, with its long sweep of yellow beach in front and its glorious grove of orange-trees behind–sure, whether the breeze came from land or sea, to inhale health and perfume. There is a wide old Piazza in the centre of the town, with a strange, dreary sort of inn with a low-arched entrance, under whose shade sit certain dignitaries of the place of an evening, sipping their coffee and talking over what they imagine to be the last news of the day. From these “Conscript Fathers” I learned that Chiavari is the native place of the barrel-organ, that from this little town go forth to all the dwellers in remotest lands the grinders of the many-cylindered torment, the persecutor of the prose-writer, the curse of him who calculates. Just as the valleys of Savoy supply white-mice men, and Lucca produces image-carriers, so does Chiavari yield its special product, the organ-grinder. Other towns, in their ambitions, have attempted the “industry,” but they have egregiously failed; and Chiavari remains as distinctive in its product as Spitalfields for its shawls, or Dresden for its china. Whether there may be some peculiarity in the biceps of the Chiavarian, or some ulnar development which imparts power to his performance, I know not. I am forced to own that I have failed to discover to what circumstance or from what quality this excellence is derivable; but there is the fact, warranted and confirmed by a statistical return, that but for Chiavari we should have no barrel-organs.

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“Never imagine,” said a wise prelate, “that you will root Popery out of England till you destroy Oxford. If you want to get rid of the crows, you must pull down the rookery.” The words of wisdom flashed suddenly over my mind as I walked across the silent Piazza at midnight; and I exclaimed–“Yes! here is the true remedy for the evil. With two hours of a gunboat and four small Armstrongs the thing is done; batter down Chiavari, and Bab-bage will bless you with his last breath. Pull down the cookery, and crush the young rooks in the ruins. Smash the cradle and the babe within it, and you need not fear the man!”

There is a grand justice in the conception that is highly elevating. There is something eminently fine in making Chiavari, like the Cities of the Plain, a monument over its own iniquity. Leave not one stone upon another of it, and there will be peace in our homes and stillness in our streets. No more shall the black-bearded tormentor terrorise over Baker Street, or lord it in the Edgeware Road.

Commander Snort of the Sneezer will in a brief forenoon emancipate not only Europe and America, but the dweller beyond Jordan and the inhabitant of the diggings by Bendigo. Lay Chiavari in ashes, and you will no longer need Inspector D, nor ask aid from the head-office. Here is what the age especially worships, a remedy combining cheapness with efficiency. It may be said that we have no more right to destroy Chiavari than Kagosima, but that question is at least debatable. Are not the headaches of tens of thousands of more avail than the head of one? What becomes of that noble principle, the greatest happiness of the greatest number? The Italians, too, might object: true, but they are neither Americans nor French. They come into the category of states that may be bullied. The countries which have an extended seaboard and weak naval armaments are like people with a large glass frontage and no shutters. There is nothing to prevent us shying a stone at the Italian window as we pass up to Constantinople, even though we run away afterwards. I repeat, therefore, the plan is feasible. As to its cheapness, it would not cost a tithe of what we spent in destroying the tea-tray fortifications of Satsuma; and as we have a classic turn for monuments, a pyramid of barrel-organs in Charing Cross might record to a late posterity the capture of Chiavari.

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I am not without a certain sort of self-reproach in all this. I feel it is a weakness perhaps, but I feel that we are all of us too hard on these organ fellows–for, after all, are they not, in a certain sense, the type and embodiment of our age? Is not repetition, reiteration, our boldest characteristic? Is there, I ask, such a “Grind” in the world as Locke King, and his motion for Reform? What do you say to “Rest and be thankful,” and, above all, what to the “Peace-at-any-price people”?

Is ‘Cherry ripe’ more wearisome than these? Would all Chiavari assembled on Wimbledon make up a drearier discord than a ministerial explanation? In all your experience of bad music, do you know anything to equal a Foreign Office despatch? and we are without a remedy against these. Bring up John Bright to-morrow for incessantly annoying the neighbourhood of Birmingham, by insane accusations against his own country and laudations of America, and I doubt if you could find a magistrate on the bench to commit him; and will you tell me that the droning whine of ‘Garibaldi’s March’ is worse than this? As to the Civis Romanus cant, it is too painful to dwell on, now that we are derided, ridiculed, and sneered at from Stockholm to Stamboul. Like Canning’s philanthropist, we have been asking every one for his story; never was there a soul so full of sympathy for sorrow. We have heard the tale of Italy, the sufferings of the Confederates, the crying wrongs of Poland, and the still more cruel, because less provoked, trials of Denmark. We have thrown up hands and eyes–sighed, groaned, wept; we have even denounced the ill-doers, and said, What a terrible retribution awaited them! but, like our great prototype, when asked for assistance, we have said,

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“I’ll see you —— first.”

Let us be merciful, therefore, and think twice before we batter down Chiavari. The organ nuisance is a bore, no doubt; but what are the most droning ditties that ever addled a weary head, compared to the tiresome grind of British moral assistance, and the greatness of that Civis Romanus who hugs his own importance and helps nobody?

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