In a previous post, A different view of graftti, I took issue with Martin Jennings’ appreciation of the grafitti on Aristotle Lane railway bridge. I found no beauty in it and saw it as both a complement to the more official forms of aesthetic vandalism visible from the bridge and as a symptom of the neglect endemic in Oxford. I ended by suggesting that worse things than grafitti flourished when the causes and the visible evidence of the grafitti were untouched.
Graffiti is actually worse as a symptom of neglect than the unemptied bins, the weed-filled gutters and the blocked drains. They merely indicate that nobody in authority bothers – councillors do not believe that their re-election will turn on such things, and local authority officers do not, for the most part, care about very much beyond their pay and pensions and whether the equalities and discrimination handbooks are up to date.
Graffiti says something more. It does not just say that no-one cares, but it adds that you can do what you like around here with impunity. Now, in this over-regulated, health’n’safety, New Labour, world, I am usually only too pleased to find somewhere where you can do what you like without some dim Plod or whining official or man in a hi-vis jacket telling you to stop, or filling in a form, or dragging you away in chains. There are limits, however, even for me.
Close by the bridge is the spot where the drug dealers meet their clients. Most evenings you can play a game – is the obese youth in the silver Peugeot the buyer or the seller? They have driven up a dead-end to get here and would be boxed in, caught red-handed with no escape route if the police came along.
Why should they fear that? The graffiti shows them that no-one will interrupt them and that no-one cares. Residents – me for example – who strongly deprecate what they are doing and the misery they are causing at both ends of their transaction will not report them. One of New Labour’s contributions to society has been to drive decent people away from any involvement with authority. For some this is the logical conclusion of Labour’s view that the State is responsible for everything; some fear each entry made on Big Brother’s database; some can’t face entanglement with under-educated policemen struggling with forms. Me – I fear wasting my time trying to get Mr Plod interested at all.
How do you convey shades of grey to a policeman? Once he establishes that no, you do not know what exactly changes hands in these transactions, or even that anything does change hands, Constable Plod will weigh the chance of getting some points towards his weekly target and decide not to bother – unless he hauls me in for wasting police time by making the call at all.
Master Obese Peugeot knows that. He knows from the graffiti that no-one in authority will care enough to come by. Authority is too busy fining motorists driving at 31 mph, chopping down trees which might one day fall on someone, beating up Westgate protesters or handing out parking tickets, to have time left for drug-dealers.