I live in London, but generally, I try to avoid using the tube, favoring buses, cycling, or walking where possible. In comparison to the subterranean transport systems of continental Europe, I find it expensive, loud, and surprisingly inefficient. This is perhaps the fault of its age, for London’s underground system is the oldest in the world. While this has long been a point of pride for the city, it has come at the expense of regular upgrade and maintenance. Original and best. The seeds of Brexit sown in the delusional pride of the dilapidated island outsider.
Due to not often hanging out in underground stations, I was surprised to find out recently that classical music is played in over 40 stations, and further surprised to discover that its purpose was to deter anti-social behavior.
This posed a number of questions. Who exactly chose the playlist? Are they all the same? Is being a DJ for TFL A Thing? And of course, did it actually work?
After a few days of no reply from my emails. I decided to conduct my own field research. I was going in.
When I spoke to the staff in my local station at Dalston Junction, where there was no music, I was met with puzzlement. I asked the staff there if they knew about the scheme, and what they thought of it. I was first told that, no, classical concerts did not happen inside the station. When I explained again, I was told that no, if I wanted to busk inside the station, I would have to acquire a license from TFL. I tried to explain again, at which point the staff on duty asked if I was angry at TFL. I told them not to worry about it, and went home.
But after asking friends, I began to draw up a list of stations, which turned out all to be on the Victoria line. The Victoria line: that most regal of all underground lines, the promised land. I found a friend to accompany me, and headed for Canaan with dictaphone in hand. Our first stop was Euston Square.
Perhaps due to its size, there was little loitering in the station at Euston Square. The people that passed through seemed in a hurry, walking with the tunnel vision determination that London instills on even the most sentimental of its inhabitants. Those passing through seemed to be mostly office-job commuters, or students from the nearby University College London, for Euston is, or at least has always seemed to me to be, a place where very few people actually live. Soft and gentle Vivaldi strings certainly made the station more pleasant, but this was a space of function, rather than a space of recreation. To paraphrase le Corbusier, Euston Square is a machine for traveling in, and while Vivaldi may grease the wheels, the music was not an enforcer of a moral code, but simply decoration. There was no action in Euston.
I needed more. I needed life. I quickly discovered that I needed Stockwell.
When I arrived off the train at Stockwell in southwest London I was met by uplifting music. Coming out of the station to the triumphant strings of what sounded like Mozart gave the moment a sense of occasion, like I’d arrived. And I had arrived: I was in Stockwell.
After passing through the gates, my first port of call was to ask the staff. I explained my situation to the man on the gate called Dean, and he was happy to talk. At first I asked him what song was playing. It sounded to me like Mozart, but I wasn’t sure. Neither was Dean. When I asked him who chose the music, he told me: TFL.
TFL had started to become ominous to me like an omnipotent overlord, like an anonymous puppet master, like…the Wizard of Oz. I wanted to get to the bottom of this. I am Judy Garland, hear me roar.
Dean explained to me that the music had been played for years, and was intended “to calm the customers down.” When I started asking him more about what he thought about the idea of using music to control people’s behavior, he became quite defensive. “No, it’s not for that. It’s to make people feel nice.” But Dean, I said, is that not the same thing? Where is the line here, Dean?
“Look, nobody really cares about the music.” After this, Dean no longer wished to speak to me. I wished him well and went to my next target: loiterers.
At first I asked a lady called Elaine, who was in a hurry, and told me that she didn’t care about the music, that it had no effect on her, and who walked off before I could suggest that perhaps the reason why she was in a hurry was in fact because of the music being played.
I then saw a man leaning against a pillar in the center of the station looking at his phone. How are we defining anti-social behavior? He wasn’t causing trouble in the traditional sense, but he certainly wasn’t being social to those around him.
His name was Brandon, and upon speaking to me he was quiet but affable. He said that the music was quite quiet, but that when he heard it, it made him feel happy. He did also however say that he didn’t often exhibit displays of antisocial behavior, and was just waiting for a friend. I believe him. Brandon = salt of the earth. Sorry to judge you Brandon. I asked Brandon what he thought of people trying to control moods with music, and he said he didn’t know, that he would have to see the data. Brandon, you truly are a modern man.
I stood listening to the music, which had changed to something more choral, more low-key, that I couldn’t identify. I began to think about the nature of loitering, and how I felt about it.
Loitering is a grey-area crime, which only becomes a prosecutable offense at the point at which the loiterer is told to move on, but does not.
Anti-loitering tactics first came into UK law as part of the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which was aimed at tackling begging, prostitution, and sleeping rough, which are still criminalized today. The approach of a government of 200 years ago to tackle a symptom of a social problem rather than its root cause has fundamentally not changed. I began to think that the classical music played in these stations was symptomatic of a backward society.
Was I taking this all too seriously? I decided to ask a man named Brian.
I had spotted Brian standing in the corner of the entrance, eating chips from a blue bag, red hood of his raincoat up. When I tried to tentatively introduce myself, he looked at me, said “No thanks” and continued to shovel chips into his beard.
I wouldn’t be deterred. Brian was The Man Of The Crowd, transported straight from an Edgar Allen Poe short story.
I asked him if how he felt about the music. He told me that he wasn’t fussed. I asked him if he liked classical music.
“It doesn’t bother me. I come up here once a week, they can play whatever they like.”
“What music would you prefer they played?”
“I don’t care. They can do what they like, I’ll still come here.”
“Once a week?”
“Once a week.”
Brian was a lone figure in a sinister world. Brian, at the coalface of the class war, once a week, undeterred, blue bag of chips in hand, play what you like, I don’t give a fuck. ¶