Don’t paint the town red

Confessions of a late-night graffiti-remover.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

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  • Don’t mention the M word

One of the core tenets of the gay and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s was their contempt for bourgeois, Victorian values, and their belief that we should break free of constricting social bonds. ‘Marriage is a very dangerous institution’, said Simone de Beauvoir in 1974. She believed wedlock was obscene, because it transformed an exchange that should be founded on spontaneous attraction into rights and duties. Many of her devotees agreed.

‘Away with the stereotypes of gender roles’ cried the Gay Liberation Front, who adopted the names ‘queer’ and ‘fag’ deliberately to assign themselves a role that was in opposition to mainstream society. Until AIDS came along, polygamy was the order of the day, marriage was regarded as a form of slow death.

It is often the way that radical movements eventually become embourgeoised themselves, coming almost to embrace the values they once spurned. Today, rather than attacking the principle of marriage, many gays actually want a form of it for themselves, which gives them rights and status and respectability. And when a form of gay marriage is secured, as is the case this week, then heterosexual couples who live together as ‘partners’ complain that they want a kind of ‘civil ceremony’ too.

For years, many have predicted the end of marriage as an institution, but it seems to be being rescued by those who once decried it. The principle of faithful, indefinite and monogamous existence – that is also recognised by the state – is actually far from moribund. It’s just that people who desire as much are scared to admit it.

  • Manchester in mourning (the other half)

Once again, society’s addiction to grieving has manifest itself in the game of football – and I’m not talking about what Carlton Brick terms ‘Beckham-mournia’ (1). Instead, this is the rather more manipulative version that football fans have become familiar with in the form of endless minutes’ silences and black armbands. Now, the tragic death of a not-very-famous Premier League footballer is being exploiting by the usual ghouls and ostentatious crybabies.

Late in June, the Manchester City midfielder Marc-Vivien Foe suddenly died while playing an international game for Cameroon. An unexpected tragedy for a young man has rather predictably been turned into an exploitative grievathon. The BBC website and one of Manchester City’s fanzine message boards were inundated with countless tributes – all expressing their deepest personal shock at this tragedy – from Gutted of Middlesbrough to Profoundly Upset of Brighton and Hove Albion to This is the Worse Thing That’s Ever Happened of Millwall. FIFA has announced a plan to rename the Confederations Cup in his name, while Manchester City itself said that they would retire the ’23’ shirt in his honour.

Nobody questions it was a horrible tragedy for the man, his family, friends and very possibly Manchester City and Cameroon fans, but as we have seen in society at large, there are always those who want to muscle in on the mourning rituals. The messages for these kind of tragedies are never anonymous. Fans of, say, Aston Villa or Manchester United always want to make it known where the sympathy is coming from. Like so much of today’s insincere mourning, it is boastful stuff devoid of dignity and modesty. Renaming a crappy tournament and withdrawing the decidedly non-famous number 23 Manchester City top in Foe’s honour are actually rather cheap and insulting gestures.

Football fanzine websites are full of message boards that are constantly used for grieving. Following the demise of Joe Strummer from The Clash in 2002 and the recent death of an actress from the TV programme Holby City, one Queen’s Park Rangers ezine featured – on both occasions – postings from fans expressing sorrow. What exactly has this to do with football? How authentic is this? And will Manchester City fans now desist from calling Manchester United ‘the Munichs’?

  • Don’t paint the town red

A friend of mine Valerie Grove writes in The Times (UK) about her recently nurtured hobby of going around the denizens of Hampstead Heath and picking up litter. Conscious that this may be seen as the first symptom of senile dementia – ‘My husband said: “That way madness lies’’’ – she insists it is merely in reaction to her local council’s inability to deal with the litter problem.

I sympathise with Mrs Grove because I have developed a comparable quirk: venturing out in the middle of the night – often fortified, admittedly, by an evening in the pub – to clean graffiti off neighbouring walls. My brother thinks this is both batty and a bit Daily Mail-ish. You may do so yourselves. However, it is my opinion that if graffiti artists cannot say anything constructive, rather than making egotistical territorial pissings, they should keep their pens in their pockets. Their scrawls look grotty and – okay, okay, this is going to sound very bad – they bring down the tone of the area. Yet so far it has worked. Graffitists who see their work quickly painted over get very downhearted and don’t seem to want to return. My ‘patch’ is now virtually daub-free.

I don’t of course expect my council to do it for me. They have a long track record of pissing council-payers money up the wall, and prefer to do ‘caring’ social work instead of mundane chores that would actually cheer everybody’s lives up. I fear the only thing that would get them going would be offensive graffiti. Perhaps if I wrote something anti-Irish, their crack anti-racist graffiti removal squad would have it painted over within minutes. I could claim immunity on the fact that I’m half Irish and that it was a form of self-loathing – a desperate cry for help – caused by abuse at the hands of priests or Famine Survivor Guilt.

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).

(1) See Beckham-mournia, by Carlton Brick

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Topics Politics


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