What could be more harmless than a pub full of songsters?

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The Independent Online
IDLY LEAFING through Mein Kampf recently, the way you do, I came upon some startling observations I'd somehow missed on all my previous leafings. (This is the trouble with easy bedtime reading: you don't attempt to read the text as conscientiously as you should.)

Contrary to our common assumption that there was nothing the Fuhrer liked better of an evening than to settle in with a bottle of schnapps, a plate of Schweinswurstchen, and a picture book containing caricatures of gypsies, homosexuals and semites, in actuality he was as bitterly opposed to comic stereotyping as any north London librarian.

Jokes about ill-favoured ethnic minorities, cartoons, limericks, funny songs - all that these did, he maintained, was to render familiar, harmless and ultimately rather likeable, the very degenerates they offered to mock.

There is more than a little truth in this. I remember hearing "Hitler has only got one ball/The other is in the Free Trade Hall" for the first time in the school playground and feeling rather sorry for the old sociopath. Since most of us as yet had only one ball to speak of ourselves - one if we were lucky - we felt a natural affinity with him.

What's more, we at least had reason to expect that, in due course, our second one would reveal itself, whereas at Hitler's age (we didn't yet realise he was dead) the disability had to be presumed to be permanent.

The fact that he'd left or lost it in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, also worked on our sympathies. The Free Trade Hall was where we were regularly taken by the school to hear John Barbirolli conduct the Halle Orchestra. So we knew just how easy it was to lose things there - white mice, marbles, our hearts to girls from the Notre Dame Convent in Cheetham Hill, and, of course, our concentration.

How many times, not yet into the second movement of a Beethoven symphony, did my thoughts go wandering around the auditorium only to settle at last on Hitler and the question of the precise whereabouts (under my very seat perhaps? inside Barbirolli's podium? down the harpist's mournful decolletage) of the second half of his Mannlichkeit.

That's what funny songs do: they domesticate and humanise the alien. Not my point, Hitler's. And if you can't trust Hitler on what does and doesn't make for cordial relations between antagonistic communities, who can you trust?

In the light of which, might not the decision of Camden Town authorities to arrest and prosecute football fans caught singing funny songs about foreigners in north London pubs and bars during the World Cup, be the wrong one?

I understand their concern. June is a hot month, whether or not there is a World Cup, and heat brings out the drinkers and drinks brings out the xenophobes. Do we really want to see Camden High Street thronged with columns of scarf-waving motor aphasics 100 deep, gargling Sol through wedges of lime and chanting "Three German Officers Crossed the Rhine", if that is, as I doubt, what they chant these days?

On aesthetic grounds, we do not. But as far as racial harmony goes, isn't it better that they sing than that they don't? Speaking as someone likely to be walking in the opposite direction, alone and humming Haydn, I'd feel a lot safer hearing communal singing coming my way than the repressed menace of a pack of bull males sunk in sullen silence. Singing is what you do when you are happy, or at least seeking consolation in pretend happiness, and the happy are generally harmless. Hitler's complaint, not mine.

It is here that I must part company with Councillor Sybil Shine who speaks for Camden on such ideological matters as these, and who herself must have been the subject of a few comic ditties in her time - Shine, Rhine, wine, schwein, to say nothing, since we're also talking football, of Sybil and dribble. "It's not so much the singing," the councillor has been reported as saying, "it's the violence that follows it."

Well, you can only tell it as you find it, and I am unable to remember the last time I suffered violence at the hands of singers. Are there any murderers whose signature, so to speak, was a tune? Who harmonised as they hacked?

I vaguely recall a deviant whistler, but no singer comes to mind, unless we count whoever it was who sang "Danny Boy" psychopathically in a movie, which I think would be unfair since a movie is fiction and "Danny Boy" isn't festive. I suppose you could say that the Three Tenors will be committing murder again in the now de rigueur World Cup Screaming concert, but we mean something different by that.

The King's Singers? Anybody been beaten to a pulp by them? The Andrews Sisters? The Mills Brothers? The Three Degrees? The Inkspots? Abba? The Vienna Boys Choir? Idling down Karntner Strasse, past the Wiener Staatsoper, has anyone ever been set upon by 200 boy sopranos in choirboy surplices singing the Te Deum as they put the boot in?

The Te Deum isn't racist, do I hear you say? But are we not told that the ostentatious worship of one god is potentially offensive to those who worship another? And isn't offence the very last thing we ever want to cause, especially in Camden Town? The Te Deum, what is more, lacks the communal comic verve of "Three German Officers", and therefore must be less conducive to the forging of those warm inter-racial affections which were the bane of the Fuhrer's life.

So, it would be best all round if the citizens of Camden could be allowed to sing about our friends the Germans and the French in peace. But if they want to sing the Te Deum after England goes down to Tunisia I don't mind that either. Since music is the food of love, and melody soothes the savage breast, sing on.

Howard Jacobson's new novel `No More Mister Nice Guy' has just been published by Jonathan Cape.

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