This might look like a wistfully nostalgic piece about harmless graffiti from the rootless post-Punk mindless empty days that caused Murphy’s Mob such early eighties angst, but it was actually inspired by catching sight of some decidedly harmful graffiti; a very largely rendered pro-BNP rant in a remote railway station in a town that was already starting to display oversized endorsements of UKIP on the side of thoroughly irrelevant shops and businesses. Like everything else about that miserable shower, it was slick, accomplished and suspiciously polite in a ‘ha ha, you can’t pin anything on me!’ manner, but devoid of artistry and imagination (and spelling and punctuation), and ultimately incapable of disguising the sheer needless and pointless nastiness that drove it. Seeing this sort of twaddle when visiting somewhere always tended to put me off the idea of ever visiting again, but like everyone else I probably felt that voting with my feet and registering my displeasure inside my own mind and the odd snarky gag in an article was probably in some way sufficient, and, well, look where we’ve ended up now.
My reaction was to counter this by scribbling down some ideas for a look back at the somewhat less ideologically repugnant graffiti that had fascinated me as a youngster; the marker-penned and whitewashed salutes and rebukes to friends, lovers, enemies, bands, football teams and, erm, Noddy that stayed in place for years (decades, even – ‘Mick Mopash ’73’ is still just about visible in a certain railway tunnel), always with a peculiar reference, detail or turn of phrase that left you wondering about the perpetrator and the subject and what strange altercation had ultimately led to this impenetrable wall-scrawl. All of the graffiti and locations obliquely referenced in this were actually real, alhough I sadly never did find out quite what ‘Bopper’ had done to upset the disgruntled pen-owner so much. I’m not going to be naive enough to suggest that it was all innocent and charming even back then – in fact, while I was updating this piece to post here, I initially wanted to include a screengrab of the graffiti-covered wall from the end credits of Murphy’s Mob bearing an alarmingly prominent drawing of a naked woman for a children’s programme, only to discover that it had fucking swastikas all over it too – but by and large graffiti was relatively innocent in those days, not to mention more direct, to the point and, well, legible. Enough for noted curmudgeon Nigel Rees to fashion a string of best-selling ‘comedy’ books from other people’s gags that he’d spotted across the walls of the nation. Either that or the overwhelming majority of late seventies graffiti was the work of vandalism-friendly Week Ending writers.
One of the phrases that you saw alarmingly often in those days was the plaintive and futile rallying plea ‘Punk’s Not Dead’. It pretty much was, of course, but not in the minds of schoolchildren who still feared the imaginary leftover spiky-haired malcontents and their reputed superhuman capacity for acts of ferocious violence against solid concrete. Inevitably this found its way into the piece, though I have to admit that Richard Herring made earlier and better jokes about ‘Punk’s Not Dead’, and even wrote and starred in a play of the same name, which I used photos from to illustrate this as a subtle acknowledgement. Also in the cast of Punk’s Not Dead was Paul Putner, who you can hear chatting to me about some things that he remembers that nobody else seems to on Looks Unfamiliar here. While we’re about it, an altogether more right-on outbreak of graffiti is covered in the edition of Looks Unfamiliar with Andy Lewis here. And why’s it called ‘Pining For The Punk Fjords’? Well, it was a sort of Parrot Sketch joke that didn’t quite work. Oh well.
You can find a massively expanded version of this piece, with more examples of baffling old-skool graffiti, more about the locations I saw them in, and what actually happened when I met ‘Becky’ who ‘said’ ‘do acid’, in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Although Norris McWhirter would never have dared venture inside, it’s likely that the world record for the largest concentration of old-skool magic marker graffiti in a single location would have been held by an eighties railway station waiting room. Across the nation, years of neglect, underfunding, bureaucratic red tape and a general lack of interest in maintaining anything municipal beyond a basic level of functionality had allowed layer upon layer upon layer of scrawl to build up on walls that would have put the end titles of Murphy’s Mob to shame, and would certainly have provided graffiti-compiling curmudgeon Nigel Rees with enough material to comfortably retire on.
Although the cumulative effect of so much handwritten text in alternating primary colours would have suggested little more to the untrained eye than that Mr. Messy had exploded, more discerning observers could just about trace an evolving subcultural history of nothing in particular through the dense lexicographical cacophony. Trends replaced trends, slang replaced slang, and not particularly coded threats to ‘Bopper’ for being a ‘grass’ replaced not particularly coded threats to his equally unimaginatively nicknamed antecedents. And weirdly aggressively punctuated rewrites of Row Row Row Your Boat about rolling joints somehow managed to remain indelibly visible through the whole lot.
If there was one recurring graffitic totem that seemed to epitomise the simultaneous permanence and futility of unattended public walls in a rapidly changing world, it was that early eighties rallying cry ‘Punk’s Not Dead’. As Richard Herring has noted, this brave, defiant and principled stand against the vagaries of fashion and the rise of materialism would invariably be rendered inert by someone crossing out the ‘not’, and someone else – and it was never the same person – judiciously adding an ‘S’. In gamely attempting to convince the world at large that punk was still a viable force, its few remaining adherents had left themselves wide open for humiliating public demolition, and quite possibly came to regret spending their small change on a marker pen rather than helping to push The Exploited slightly nearer the top forty. And it was probably at this precise moment that punks ceased to be frightening to the world at large.
Quite why they were any more deserving of this status than any other youth cult (including some more genuinely threatening ones) is something of a mystery – though those zany Sex Pistols saying ‘barstard’ at Bill Grundy might have had something to do with it – but punks loomed larger in the juvenile catalogue of terrifying peers than perhaps any other historical equivalent ever. Indeed, even well into the ‘Punk’s Not Dead’ era, it was not unusual for school playgrounds to reverberate with distressed reports of ‘a punk’ on the rampage in the vicinity, usually accompanied by Godzilla-esque tales of them headbutting chunks out of buildings whilst a small army of police cowered helplessly behind riot shields.
By the time of Channel 4’s celebration of the, erm, Fourteenth Anniversary of Punk, though, they had seemingly lost all of their terror-generating cachet. Old ladies would write to newspapers expressing gratitude to ‘punks’ that had tackled a bag-snatcher. Ludicrously mohicanned male model Matt Belgrano established himself as the Wogan-friendly face of anarchy. Even the tabloid press started to view them as some sort of loveable friend-in-need in the fight against the ‘dangerous’ dogs, ecstasy-addled hordes and obvious hoaxes about ‘live’ ghost-hunting that had become the new public bete noires. After all, SOMEONE needed to take a stand against whoever it was that had started appending smiley faces with wizard’s hats to the railway station waiting room walls.
Nowadays you’re more likely to find those selfsame railway station waiting rooms covered in coffee dispensers and adverts with similing mug-wielding monochrome girls endorsing ‘Cafe Ainnichuchi’ or whatever the latest one’s called. And nobody’s ever written anything on their faces either. But spare a thought for those defiant idealist punks who felt the best way to preserve the integrity of a youth movement that once had the establishment quaking and the charts rigged was to plead their case to a handful of rain-drenched commuters. Remember them this way: as a spiky-haired old-skool city smasher hurtling down the street shouting ‘RAR RAR RADDL-A-RARR!’ in the face of nobody in particular.
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You can find an expanded version of this feature, with even more examples of bewildering old-skool graffiti, in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
There’s some hilarious chat about Vintage Anti-Enoch Powell Graffiti in the edition of Looks Unfamiliar with Andy Lewis, which you can find here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.