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Painting by laws

The only people who will suffer from London’s proposed anti-grafitti legislation are tomorrow's Rolf Harrises.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Politics

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  • Bog-standard graffiti

A report from a group of London assembly members suggests that the best way to combat graffiti, which costs the capital £100million a year, is to ban the under-18s from buying marker pens and spray paints. Not only do such bans never seem to work – this suggestion ignores the well-documented fact that most graffitists don’t buy marker pens and spray paint, they steal them. The only people who will suffer from this proposed legislation are tomorrow’s Tony Harts and Rolf Harrises.

As Nancy Macdonald has pointed out in her The Graffiti Subculture (1), the whole point of ‘tagging’ is that it is illegal. The protagonists love the risk and danger it involves; they enjoy the competition involved between different tag names; they seek the respect of their peers that derives from being the most prolific and audacious tagger.

Most graffiti, admittedly, is fairly insipid: feeble, territorial pissings from boys seeking fame in any medium. Much more entertaining than these messy cries for attention is old-fashioned political or dialogistical graffiti – that Parisian 1968 Situationist slogan ‘It is forbidden to forbid’ being a celebrated example. I quite liked too one spotted at Manchester University library c.1996, in which below the scrawl ‘Free Tibet’ a wit had added ‘in every packet of Corn Flakes’.

A lot of toilet graffiti is puerile; but we shouldn’t be too hasty to get rid of the erudite ones. Back in 1731 an Englishman, Hurlothrumbo, compiled The Merry-Thought, or, the Glass-Window and the Bog-House Miscellany. He cursed inn-keepers for washing off scatological toilet rhymes. Here is one of his more memorable findings:

You are eas’d in your Body, and pleas’d in your Mind/That you leave both a Turd and some Verses behind/But to me, which is worse, I can’t tell, on my Word/The reading your Verses, or smelling your Turd.

  • Mountain to Mohammed

The UK government thinks that the more voting is presented as one of life’s everyday decisions, then the more likely we are going to bother make our voices heard. Put polling booths in supermarkets and railway stations; allow internet and text-message voting, that’s the way to do it. This is only going to make matters worse: the decline in voter turnout in the West has been aided by the consumerisation of politics.

A complaint one hears repeatedly today is that ‘there is no party out their that stands up for what I believe in’. In the local elections, where most people were given the choice of choosing between the three major British parties, this is probably true – because even when people have something they feel passionate about today, it is invariably a single issue and not a philosophy. As the May Day demonstrations have proved year after year, even those who proclaim to be an ‘anti-capitalist’ alliance are in truth a mixed bag of single issue groupsicles with specific gripes.

It’s as if the political sphere itself has become a giant pick-and-choose supermarket, where the public has become loyal consumers of particular brands. Reducing the democratic process to the equivalent of going to Tesco, or complaining to BBC’s Watchdog, is only going to galvanise the popularly held-sentiment that parties are there solely to pander to spontaneous demands, rather than to display coherence and leadership. Impulse purchases are generally mindless and always costly.

  • Intergalactic travesty

Next week sees the release of Star Wars II: The Attack of the Clones. With any luck, this film won’t be as laughable as the first Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace (1999), which was redeemed only by an alien called Jar Jar Binks, who sounded like he was doing an impression of Jim Davidson’s ‘rasta black man’, Chalky. Many complained that Jar Jar Binks was the worst thing about the film, but to my mind it confirmed the fact that the movie was a complete joke. Word has it, however, that the absurdly titled Attack of the Clones is a travesty of galactic proportions.

It is a pity George Lucas has gone to pot, as the first Star Wars trilogy was fun. But it must be kept in mind that Star Wars (1977) was one of the most unoriginal films ever made. In 1948, Joseph Campbell, a Jungian anthropologist, penned a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, where he outlined the one single story common to all cultures. The book featured a hero who comes from a humble background, often orphaned. He is approached by a wise old man with a beard who informs him of his fate. The hero is initially reluctant to take up the task, but eventually realises that it is his destiny to save the Universe. With the old sage he treks into the wilderness, is given many tasks, meets companions who will help him, encounters bogus friends who will betray him, before he confronts the evil one in his lair of darkness.

This is Star Wars. It is also Harry Potter, The Matrix and Lord of The Rings. But what really clinches it for Star Wars is that its famous soundtrack is unoriginal too. John Williams’ score for the entire movie was clearly based on Holst’s Mars Suite.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

Read on:

Modernity’s malcontents

(1) The Graffiti Subculture, Nancy Macdonald, Palgrave, 2001

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