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Paul Vallely: Beware a creeping majoritarianism

18 June 2008

Some people want to project a homogenised vision on to society

I thought something really interesting had happened when I saw the headline “Wedding bells ring for gay couples.” Perhaps sexual politics had extended its reach even into the realm of noise abatement? Gay campaigners, no doubt inspired by the example of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, the founders of the Aldeburgh Festival, must have waded into the row over the noise of bell-ringers practising the famous three-hour peal that begins the festival each year. Perhaps the world of change-ringing, too, had now been riven into pro- and anti-gay lobbies.

The reality was less interesting; it was just the usual stuff about Anglican Church in meltdown over homosexuality. But perhaps the controversy over “the peace of Sunday” being shattered by the noise of bell-ringers carries a deeper sociological significance.

By that, I do not mean just that if the bells at St Peter and St Paul’s in Aldeburgh are silenced under environmental laws, the precedent will threaten the heritage of bell-ringing in thousands of churches across the land. The Vicar there, the Revd Nigel Hartley, seems more than capable of mounting an effective defence against the handful of residents who have complained to Suffolk Coastal District Council that practice on the second Sunday of every month constitutes “a statutory nuisance”, making it impossible for them to “enjoy their gardens” in the summer.

Would the protesters move next door to a football stadium, he asked, and apply to have the crowd hushed at every home game? It was a cultural rather than a theological response, and, for once, it put the Church on the side of common sense rather than beaching itself on the far shores of the irrelevance, misogyny, or homophobia, which is where contemporary secular society so often finds it.

The complaint against the Aldeburgh bells discloses something about our society’s view of the good life, which continues on its journey into an atomised individuality increasingly estranged from the vision of the common weal. The chief complainant against the change-ringers’ peal moaned: “If you listen to it more than an hour, your ears end up jangling. . . It drives everybody nearby potty.”

Note the “everybody”. It is, of course, a rhetorical device, since patently there are large numbers of people who find the sound an attractive part of what constitutes the English soundscape. But it is a revealing device, because substituting the standpoint of the individual for that of the community is part of the I-know-my-rights view that is atomising modern living.

This is more than the dissonance of inflicting the whining of your grass-strimmer on the ears of the neighbourhood, and yet objecting to the sound of the community’s church bells. It goes beyond tolerance, and enters into the business of how, as a society, we accept departures from our individual ideal, and deal with the messy reality of living among others.

Increasingly, many people want to live in a bubble, untouched by relationships other than those they encounter in the one-sided business of consumerism. They want to project their bland, homogenised vision on to the rest of society, and insist that it is not just normative or desirable, but imposed on everyone else — if necessary, using the law.

Is there a compromise, Mr Hartley was asked. Of course, there can be a practical resolution. Villagers in Bedfordshire this year went to court and fought off a council noise-abatement order against their bells; in Essex they spent £100,000 on a bell-muffling device. But the real issue is not noise abatement. It is creeping majoritarianism, and compromising with that is a trickier business altogether.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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