‘People hate anything well-made, you know; it gives them a guilty conscience.’ So said John Betjeman when surveying the irreparable damage to a railway carriage after it had been (in his own words) ‘smashed by Teds’; this example of vandalism captured on camera in the early 1960s anticipates the familiar wreckage visited upon carriages a decade or so later. That was when British Rail would segregate football fans travelling to an away game from ordinary passengers. The so-called ‘Football Specials’ became notorious mobile war-zones; presumably hoping the supporters would exhaust their appetite for destruction on the train and spare shopkeepers and homeowners around football grounds, the trains laid on for fans were deliberately dirty old stock – after all, if they were going to be smashed up, there didn’t seem much point providing travellers with the latest luxurious carriages. So they weren’t.
As someone far too young to be exposed to such anarchy around this time, I was more likely to be instinctively attracted to other pleasures when out and about; if in the vicinity of a public park, for example, there could only be one destination. However, a Sunday was not a good day for innocent desires to be satisfied. Many much older than me will probably have memories of the swings, slides and roundabouts being padlocked on the Lord’s Day; presumably an austere, God-fearing Victorian hangover born of concerns that poor people might harbour hedonistic designs on the Sabbath, locking-up such an innocuous source of escapism as a children’s playground seems incredibly mean-spirited in retrospect. Also, as all parks had park-keepers back then, they no doubt figured they were entitled to their day-off; preventing kids from enjoying the facilities was probably one way in which they could express their Jobsworth tendencies without having to be there in finger-wagging person. However, I suspect minimising vandalism was a prominent factor behind the practice by the time I was of the age to be enticed by the swings.
Public information films of the era warned parents to keep tabs on their offspring in order to prevent them lapsing into antisocial activities. One particular classic portrays the aftermath of an evening’s vandalism inflicted upon a typical new-built suburban housing estate as a group of irate adults engage in a clean-up operation. Despite having the distinct whiff of a wife-swapping clique, the couples in question mount the moral high-horse and declare their own children would never have been involved. Actually, the mess is a bit OTT, looking more like the chaos left behind by a tornado rather than a few unsupervised kids. God knows how they were able to do such damage without being chased off by one of the adults – though perhaps the adults were ‘busy’ indoors. Anyway, ‘Where’s Your Lad?’ was the tagline of this specific PIF series, and apparently all vandals were exclusively male.
If vandalism of the juvenile kind is the most extreme discharge of raging testosterone deprived of other outlets, it isn’t – and never has been – restricted to manmade objects. I once saw an archive clip of Spike Milligan mourning the desecration of ancient Aboriginal cave-paintings in Australia, and only the other week I caught a headline about a venerable old oak tree being vandalised somewhere in England. Vandalism of the landscape doesn’t seem to distinguish between the products of nature and man; the target appears to be anything intended to improve or make that landscape easier on the eye. We’re all familiar with urban saplings being uprooted days after being planted by the council, almost as if the ugliness the saplings would eventually diminish the power of has too great a grip on the perception of the vandal. Trees? Flowers? Something to bring colour and natural beauty to the grim, grey concrete surroundings? No, that doesn’t compute. Keep it grim. That’s what we know as home.
As with most Wilde quotes – even ones I know I’ve quoted before – paraphrasing takes over; when asked why America was such a violent society, Oscar replied it was down to American wallpaper being so terrible – or words to that effect. His point was made with characteristically witty frivolity, but there was truth behind it. The theory is that an aesthetic environment that doesn’t make you want to throw yourself out of the window when you pull back the curtains and look at it will curb the craving to indulge in criminal damage. The problem is that when some have never known anything but an aesthetic environment of unremitting ugliness, any sign of beauty that destabilises the equilibrium has to be destroyed as a subconscious means of restoring the natural order of things as they know it.
Even the cult of graffiti-as-art that exists today doesn’t validate the vast majority of graffiti, most of which has no such pretensions, is unequivocally awful, and makes an already grubby neighbourhood look even worse. But that’s probably the aim – a subliminal expression of helplessness when faced with such dire surroundings that a tree or floral display only further highlights the direness of. It’s like when a shiny new stand is erected at a football stadium; all it does is make the rest of the ground look crap. To return to Betjeman’s observation that opened proceedings, there’s also an undoubted feeling of inadequacy that can overcome some when confronted by a beautiful object, whether authored by Mother Nature or man. The gut reaction to the sobering realisation of the beholder that he can never emulate or replicate such beauty is to erase it from the landscape out of spite, reducing the artist to his own lowly level; in turn, this momentarily cures the vandal’s inferiority complex.
Okay, it’s a theory; but as an explanation for a base act of physical destruction that often appears so aimless and inexplicable, it’s one that could even be applied in a far wider context. Just as some refuse to countenance the fact that the greatest theatrical canon in the English language could have come from the pen of one exceptional individual, the levelling of the creative and the mediocre (one that he who vandalises beauty achieves) is regarded in some circles as an egalitarian and democratic move, meaning we are all on the same level of mediocrity and there are no exceptional individuals. The absence of charismatic figureheads in the leaderless movements of the past decade – Occupy, Extinction Rebellion, BLM – could be viewed as another symptom of this collectivist approach; it obviously underscores recent manifestations of Marxism and the attendant craving to destroy symbols of culture and civilisation that were created by the creative to celebrate beauty and achievement.
Had the Guardian existed during the English Civil War, it’s not hard to speculate which side it would be supporting; even now, it reads like a rag written both by and for the most pious of puritans; and its mindset is echoed in the diversity and inclusivity agendas of institutions and corporations that relegate merit and ability to secondary factors. If the world’s next creative genius isn’t a non-binary trans-person of colour with the right opinions, chances are we’ll never hear of them or enjoy their work. And, as fulfilling narrowly-defined quotas generally precludes the independent spirit of the creative genius, we probably won’t produce one anyway – just an endless succession of average artists making average work that will never be in danger of making anyone feel inadequate because none of it will come close to genius. Vandalism can take many forms.
© The Editor