Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Historical Romance

     Hnnnyeah, it’s not for me. If I want history, I’ll read a book by a historian. If I want romance… be grateful you can’t see my face right now, because romance can fucking fuck off and do one as far as I’m concerned. I am not at home to Mr Hopeless Romantic (that said, if anyone fancies wining and dining, I’m more than happy to watch you eat whilst I sink a bottle of Chenin Blanc). So no. No historical romance here, thank you.

     And no historical romance when it comes to the past either. I’m bored with it. More than bored, actually. I’m tossily fecking pissed off with it. There seems to be a strand of people who can’t accept that A Small Thing is just A Small Thing. I’m talking mostly about graffiti, of course, because that’s what I do, but you can apply it to pretty much any Old Thing that people talk about. An old building can’t just be an old building, no; it has to have a bedroom that Elizabeth I reputedly slept in. An old book can’t just be an old book; it has to have reportedly once belonged to Shakespeare. Strange markings on church walls weren’t caused by a dangling light pull installed in 1973, but instead hint at some mysterious occult practises that may relate to tales of witchcraft in the village during the 16th century.

     People often preface these evidenceless suppositions with ‘it is tempting to imagine…’ or ‘it is entirely possible that…’ or to put it another way ‘I don’t like not knowing everything, so I’m going to make up some complete bollocks, based on nothing other than a) my own inability to accept we’ll probably never know the truth and b) that I insist on everything being significant and important because I’m scared that I am myself insignificant and unimportant’. Which would be a bit of a long-winded way to start a sentence to be fair. I privately refer to these people as ‘Pritchards’, thanks to a certain book [dark mutterings]

     I can understand why. People like certainty, facts, neat little endings, and links to Big And Important Events. When they encounter a piece of history that on the face of it isn’t clear cut or glamorous (in their opinion), they feel a little disappointed and their mind issues an ‘…oh’. The temptation to therefore make something seem more than it is appears to be fairly universal. And nowhere is this more true than with graffiti. I’m going to contradict myself slightly here by saying that all graffiti has meaning. All of it, from the humblest spraypainted tag to the most beautiful and impressive 14th Century SHIP GRAFFITI!!! If it didn’t have any meaning, it wouldn’t exist. If someone creates something by a deliberate action, it intrinsically has meaning, even if that meaning is only known by the hand that created it and the reasons behind it leave every other soul on the planet baffled. So even just a pair of initials on a school playground wall has/had meaning. Where the problems seem to arise is in determining what the meaning is.

     Let’s take those initials, shall we? We can guess at the age of them by how weathered and smooth the stone around them has become. We can guess at the age of the person who carved them by how high they are, and the fact that they’re in a school playground. We can observe that they are surrounded on every side by similar initials, and nod sagely that yes, graffiti attracts graffiti. Meaning? That’s a bit trickier. It’s just a very human thing to do. To say, in the phrase I try to avoid but never bloody do, ‘I was here’. There are other things we could add, about how people copy others, how it’s ‘just what you do’, we could speculate that the child who created it may perhaps have been experiencing upheaval in their life and wanted to make some part of themselves more permanent. But ultimately, it is just a pair of initials on a wall. Does that make it any less interesting? Any less meaningful? For me, no. For others, yes. For others still, it’s clearly the sign of some cult that brainwashed children in the 1970s and forced them to create physical damage to buildings associated with authority in an attempt to bring down society to achieve anarchy in the UK.

     I wish I was making that sort of bollocks up (I did, to be honest), but it’s actually just an extension of so many comments and wild speculating that I read again and again when it comes to graffiti. A cross found in a church porch can’t be a straightforward as a record of a transaction or agreement. It has to be related to pilgrims, even when there’s no record of pilgrims ever visiting, or even a nearby shrine. A tally chart can’t just be a basic tally chart of someone who needed a handy surface to keep a record on at some point prior to 1500. No, it has to be the record of deaths from the plague during an outbreak in the village in 1426. A drawing of someone in a hood is actually a satirical representation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, based upon one piece of marginalia written by someone hundreds of miles away at the time, and whose handwriting is dodgy enough that it’s possible to read key words in four different ways. Or, it’s just someone in a hood. A woman carved into the walls of Norwich Castle isn’t just another carving of a person, she’s there for good fortune, significance, importance, wild speculation, theories that make no sense and are based upon no actual evidence other than the person who’s talking about her determined to prove that actually it means more than that because ‘I’m clever too, you know!’

     Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s one I actually didn’t make up. 

Look! A graffito of a… hat. 

Here is another… hat. Clearly, they must be linked. Except that one is in a church in Essex, and the other is in Bethlehem. But, ‘it is impossible to ignore the resemblance’, apparently. And to give you some idea of the logic at work there, the first theory considered is that it might relate to the Knights Templar. This happens quite a lot. Anything unusual or not immediately explicable is very, very, very often assigned to Templars and some kind of mysterious plot hidden from us that continues to this very day. They are the generic fruit based listening device of graffiti theories by the bored and ill informed, and they are also very tedious. The same author also decides it’s ‘possible’ that daisywheels represent badges of a religious or knightly Order, and I’d better shut up now before I really go off on one (but before I do, I’m just going to add that the text next to the first 'hat' reads ‘god help me’ which I’d say is rather more interesting than FIVE PAGES of discussion of a hat which is actually a knight’s helmet with a plume and not a hat at all).

     Graffiti does have meaning beyond what is on the surface. It’s never superficial. I can bore on for days about it (and as we know, frequently do), but endlessly talking about it has to be grounded in what we actually see, not what we think we know, or what we want to impress others with. Graffiti always has meaning, is always important, simply by its existence. But what it isn’t is a peg on which to hang your need to show off how much you know, nor is it always going to mean more than anything mundane and simple. Some inscriptions do. Some inscriptions require knowledge, experience, research and a twatty blogger getting annoyed and saying ‘bollocks is it fuck’. Some inscriptions we will never be able to understand wholly, and that’s fine. No one is ever going to know everything. But sometimes, it is as simple as a child carefully scratching their initials onto a wall in a playground. No more, no less. And it’s important – just as important as the inscription itself – to not overcomplicate our interpretation of it by automatically assuming it means anything beyond the fact that it was created in the first place.

Thursday, 7 July 2016



 Look at that. It’s not much, is it? But whilst it certainly hasn’t changed my life, unlike another little graffito not so far away, it perhaps explains why graffiti exerts such a hold on me. I don’t get out graffiti hunting much, but I do see a lot of it and of what I see, it is the simplest finds that seem to stay with me.

     Daisywheels. If I was trying to impress you with just how intelligent I am, I’d call them hexfoils, or compass drawn designs, and wank on about principles of Euclidean geometry, but I’m not and it’d just be embarrassing for all concerned, so I’ll stick to calling them daisywheels (also because it pains some people to see them called daisywheels, and I am cruel). The idea behind them is relatively simple. Demons are all around us, stalking the earth, bringing pain, suffering and death with them. Evil bastards, basically. But also stupid bastards who are highly curious (yes, got there before you). If they come across a line, they are compelled to follow it until it reaches an end. If, however, the line is endless, then the demon must forever retrace their steps and is effectively trapped within it forever. A simple idea, a simple design, a simple solution.

     Daisywheels are one of the most common medieval graffiti finds; most people who go hunting in even the most halfarsed way will probably have found one. They don’t rank up there with the ‘WOW’ factor when you pit them against the more unusual and intricate inscriptions. People don’t ooh and aah and talk about how stunning they are, or devote time to talking about them even, because they are simple, they’re common, and to most people, they are dull.

     But because I am a softhearted contrary twat, I adore them. Especially the simplest, most basic design, the Tesco Value of apotropaic marks. The beauty of them is that they are balanced, whole, complete, and the intention behind them is pure. To protect loved ones from harm. To turn aside evil. They are a testament to the two emotions most likely to cause us to act – love of someone, and the fear that harm may befall them. The fact that daisywheels are so widespread and easily found bears eloquent silent witness that so many people felt the way we do now about those who are special to us. It’s not a great big shout of ‘look at me, look what I’ve made, aren’t I great?’, but instead a gentle little whisper of hope and love. Something about that bypasses my (admittedly limited) rationality and brings tears to my eyes.

     I’m such a twat about them that I even get a bit upset when I see daisywheels that have gone a bit… wrong. I imagine the horror that the creator would have felt at seeing something that had the best intentions do exactly the opposite and the guilt they may have felt if Bad Things happened, thinking that perhaps they had caused it by not being as careful as they might have been. Or the pointed finger of judginess from others that It Was All Their Fault And They Know It. Stupid, I know. I never claimed to be logical.

     If I’m honest, though, I just feel protective about daisywheels. That people ignore them, and instead go after the big showy treasures, the impressive stuff that’s guaranteed to gain attention. ‘Just some daisywheels…’ is the disgruntled mutter of a thwarted graffiti hunter, unimpressed by the thought of a love and intention that was etched into stone centuries earlier. An intention that was shared by so many people, in so many churches, a widespread belief and devotion that we see time and time again. People overlook them in favour of the three ring circus things, in favour of the stuff that was made with the intention of gaining attention, quite often the graffiti that weren’t made with any real meaning or significance behind them beyond showing off. That leaves me cold. I’m aware that this means I’m not a true graffiti person, that I’m out of step with pretty much everyone else on this because I’d rather think about wallflowers than find a unique graffito of national significance. But wallflowers tell me more about people than almost anything else. They’re nothing special. But then most people aren’t either… except that we all are. And wallflowers remind me of that.