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Signs of the Times

An eighteenth-century traveller remarked that “if towns were to be called after the first words which greeted a traveller on arrival, London would be called Damn it!” At the beginning of the twentieth century it would have been called “Bloody” and today “Fuckin’.”

“Fucking” is one of the longest-serving terms of abuse, having been heard on the London streets since the thirteenth century, and it is perhaps no surprise that the prevalent adjective applied to the language of Londoners is “disgusting.” The “disgust” is a response to that undertow of violence and anger which exemplifies life in the city, while such miseries as sexual abuse may have testified to the distaste which Londoners have had for their own fallen and once dirty condition. Contemporary standards of hygiene and more liberal sexual mores have not, however, materially diminished the “fucking” and “cunts” heard in the street. Perhaps modern Londoners are simply mouthing the words which the city itself has bequeathed to them.

In this context the obscene gesture should not be forgotten. In the sixteenth century a biting of the thumb represented aggression; this in turn led to the hat being cocked backwards and, in the late eighteenth century, “by a jerk of the thumb over the left shoulder.” The thumb then moved to the tip of the nose to represent contempt, and by the twentieth century two fingers were raised in the air as a “V” sign. The arm and elbow were then employed in an upward thrust to suggest derision.

The hand gestures of the street could also be free of sexual innuendo. There was once, everywhere, a pointing hand on the palm of which a destination was offered—“please to go this way,” whether to an eating-house or a toyshop. London was a city of signs. In 1762, according to Jenny Uglow’s Hogarth, the “Society of Sign Painters” announced a “Grand Exhibition” of its products, and in some rooms off Bow Street were exhibited “Keys, Bells, Swords, Poles, Sugar-Loaves, Tobacco Rolls, Candles,” all the “ornamental Furniture, carved in Wood.” It was meant as a reproof to the more tasteful productions of the Society of Arts, but its comic variety was also a testimony to an ancient but still living tradition of street art.

Once a pole draped with red rags was the emblem of the barber-surgeon who was permitted to bleed customers on his premises, the pole itself a token of the wooden rod which the customer held to keep his arm steady. The red rag later turned into a red stripe, until it became the customary barber’s pole of succeeding centuries. Almost every house, and certainly every trade, had its own sign so that the streets of the city were a perpetual forest of painted imagery: “Floure de Lice … Ravyns Head … Corniyshe coughs … The Chalice … The Cardinal’s Hat.” There were images of chained bears and of rising suns, of sailing ships and angels, of red lions and golden bells. There were also simple tokens of residence. Mr. Bell, for example, might hang the sign of a bell outside his house. But there were also well-known, if somewhat surprising, conjunctions in pub signs such as the Dog and Gridiron or the Three Nuns and a Hare. There were unusual attributions, too. As Addison pointed out, “I have seen a Goat set up before the Door of a Perfumer, and the French King’s Head at a Sword-Cutlers’s.” Tom Jones, in Henry Fielding’s novel of that name, takes up the litany: “Here we saw Joseph’s Dream, the Bull and Mouth, the Hen and Razor, the Ax and Bottle, the Whale and Crow, the Shovel and Boot, the Leg and Star, the Bible and Swan, the Frying Pan and Drum.” Adam and Eve represented a fruiterer, while the horn of a unicorn symbolised the shop of an apothecary; a bag of nails denoted an ironmonger, a row of coffins a carpenter. A sign of male and female hands conjoined might sometimes be completed by the message “Marriages performed within.”

It was a question of reading the street, of making the right associations and connections in an environment which needed a thorough decoding to mitigate its chaos and variety. Interpretative tracts, such as the elegantly titled Vade Mecum for Malt Worms, were also published. In 1716 John Gay gave best expression to the situation, however, in “The Art of Walking The Streets in London”—a theme taken up by many writers—with his portrait of a stranger who “dwells on ev’ry Sign, with stupid Gaze/Enters the narrow Alley’s doubtful Maze.”

There were also signs and plaques carved into the stone of London’s buildings. Small tablets marked newly laid-out streets—“This is Johns Street Ano Dom 1685”—while corporate heraldry was employed in the “arms” of a district or company affixed to various buildings; the symbol of St. Marylebone contains lilies and roses, because these were the flowers found in the grave of St. Mary after whom the district is named. At a later date even the lowly coal-hole covers were richly decorated, so that those who preferred to look down upon the ground were still assaulted by symbols of dogs and flowers. A nailed hoop upon a door or wall denoted the presence of fresh paint, while a small bouquet of straw meant that building work was taking place in the vicinity.

The city is indeed a labyrinth of signs, with the occasional but unnerving suspicion that there may exist no other reality than these painted symbols which demand your attention while leading you astray. As one commentator said of the modern and brilliantly illuminated Piccadilly Circus, “it is a wonderful sight—unless you can read.”

The signs of the city were distracting in another sense. They hung out so far from the wall that they touched those on the opposite side of the street, and they were sometimes so large that they blocked out sight of the sky. They could also be dangerous; they were meant to be placed at least nine feet above the level of the pavement, so that a horse and rider could pass beneath, but the regulation was not always obeyed. They were very heavy and there were occasions when the weight of sign and leaden support was too great for the wall to which they were fixed—one “front-fall” of this kind in Fleet Street injured several people and killed “two young ladies, a cobbler, and the king’s jeweller.” On windy days in the capital, the noise was ominous, their “creaking Noise” a sure sign of impending “rainy Floods.” So, in the same years as the exhibition of street signs off Bow Street, the city authorities concluded that they had become an impediment to the ever increasing traffic of the streets and ordered that they be taken down. Ten years later came street numbers.

But all colour was not lost. The passion for street art simply changed its form, with the expansion of advertising. There had always been posters wrapped around the wooden posts of the street to publicise the latest auction or the latest play, but only after the demise of street signs did other forms of public art properly emerge. By the early nineteenth century London had “grown wondrously pictorial” with a variety of papier-mâché ornaments or paintings placed in shop windows to denote the trade of the occupant. An essay in The Little World of London, entitled “Commercial Art,” lingers pleasurably on these objets d’art. Many coffee houses had a symbol of loaf and cheese together with cup; fishmongers painted the walls of their premises with “a group of fish in the grand style” all variously and picturesquely coloured, while grocers specialised in “conversation pieces” which portrayed various benevolent London matrons “assembled round the singing kettle or the simmering urn.” Boots, cigars and sealing wax, in gigantic form, were also suspended over the doors of various premises, while the destruction of Pompeii seemed a fitting advertisement for a patent cockroach exterminator.

One great innovation of the nineteenth century was the advertising hoarding, and in some of the earliest photographs of London they can be seen lining the streets and the new railway stations offering everything from Pear’s Soap to the Daily Telegraph. Advertising was in that sense very much part of the ideal of “progress,” since the hoardings themselves had first been erected to protect the streets from the myriad building sites and railway improvements. Once posters had been enlarged to cover these wooden frames, then advertising images appropriate to the city itself—large, gaudy, colourful— began to emerge. There were certain popular sites, among them the north end of Waterloo Bridge and the dead wall beside the English Opera House in North Wellington Street. Here, according to Charles Knight’s London, could be found “rainbow-hued placards vying in gorgeous extravagance of colour with Turner’s last new picture … pictures of pens, gigantic as the plumes in the casque of the Castle of Otranto … spectacles of enormous size … Irishmen dancing under the influence of Guinness’s Dublin Stout.”

“A London Street Scene,” painted by J.O. Parry in 1833, could serve as an introduction to any street scene over the last two centuries. A small blackened sweep-boy looks up in admiration as a poster for a new performance of Otello is placed over one advertising John Parry in The Sham Prince; there is a bill proclaiming “Mr. Matthews—At Home,” “Tom & Jerry—The Christening—!!!!!!” and a narrow strip asking “Have You Seen The Industrious Fleas?” Thus the walls of the city become a palimpsest of forthcoming, recent and old sensations.

On a dead wall today, close to where I am now writing this book, and not far from the site of the 1833 painting, can be seen posters for “Armageddon,” “To Heathrow in Fifteen Minutes,” “Mr. Love Pants Is Coming,” “Meltdown ’98 Festival,” “Drugstore—Sober—New Single Available,” “Apostle” and “The Girl With Brains In Her Feet.” More mysterious advertisements suggest that “There’s A Revolution In Sight,” that “The Magic Is Closer Than You Think,” and that “Nothing Else Moves Me.”

“Peripatetic placards” appeared on the streets in the 1830s. These were such a novel phenomenon that Charles Dickens interviewed one and, by describing him as “a piece of human flesh between two slices of pasteboard,” created the phrase “sandwich man.” George Scharf drew many of them, from a small boy in surtout overcoat holding a barrel inscribed “Malt Whiskey John Howse” to an old woman holding up a sign for “Anatomical Model of the Human Figure.”

Then in characteristic London fashion the single placard-carriers were put together in order to create a kind of pageant or pantomime; a group of them were placed inside paste models of blacking pots, for example, and paraded in line to advertise the efficacy of “Warrens Blacking, 30 Strand,” the very place where Dickens himself began his tortuous London childhood. Then arrived the advertisement as the horse-drawn gig, surmounted by an enormous hat or an Egyptian obelisk. The search for novelty was always intense and the passion for posters blossomed into the “electric advertisements” of the 1890s when “Vinolia Soap” was hailed in illuminated letters above Trafalgar Square.

Advertisements in lights soon began to move; at Piccadilly Circus could be seen a red crystal bottle pouring port into a waiting glass, and a car with turning silver wheels. Soon they were everywhere—above the ground, under the ground, and in the sky. The plethora of advertising in London helped fashion Huxley’s vision of the future city in Brave New World where above Westminster “The electric sky-signs effectively shut off the outer darkness. ‘Calvin Stopes and His Sixteen Sexophonists.’” Buses of the twenty-first century, perhaps beyond the purview of dystopian fiction, are now plastered with gaudy images like the pageant wagons of medieval London.

The pavement artists have had a less glorious career in the city. They commenced their work only when the streets were paved with stone rather than cobbles, and in that sense theirs is a recent London profession. There was a time when beggars scrawled their messages of supplication upon the stones— “Can You Help Me Out” being a favourite expression—but the pavement artist supplied a variant in the 1850s with the chalked words “All My Own Work” or “Every Little Helps. I thank you.” These street artists, or “screevers” as they were once called, had their own particular pitches. The corners of fashionable squares were considered to be ideal territory but Cockspur Street and the site opposite Gatti’s restaurant in the Strand were favoured locales. There was also a line of such street artists along the Embankment, with twenty-five yards between each pitch. Many of these “screevers” were demoralised artists whose orthodox work had not prospered—Simeon Solomon’s career as a Pre-Raphaelite painter had been applauded, for example, but he ended up as a pavement artist in Bayswater. Others were the homeless or unemployed who realised that they had a talent for the job; it required only coloured chalks and a duster, and a scene or portrait could be conjured upon the stone. Some specialised in portraits of contemporary politicians, or of sentimental domestic situations; one artist painted religious scenes along the Finchley Road, while in the Whitechapel Road another specialised in scenes of fire and burning houses. In all cases, however, they satisfied the taste of London by painting in the crudest and most garish tones, although by curious association they are related to the night sky above the city. In The Highways and Byways of London, Mrs. E.T. Cook reported that the sky behind the artists’ lodging houses in Drury Lane or Hatton Garden would often be robed “in intense hues of orange, purple and crimson” as if mimicking their colours. George Orwell, in Down and Out in Paris and London, recalls the conversation of one screever, Bozo, whose pitch was close to Waterloo Bridge. He was walking with Orwell back to his lodgings in Lambeth, but was all the time looking up at the heavens. “Say, will you look at Aldebaran! Look at the colour. Like a—great blood orange … Now and again I go out at night and watch the meteors.” Bozo had even engaged in correspondence with the Astronomer Royal on the subject of the sky above London, so that for a moment the city and the cosmos were intimately connected in the life of one wandering artist of the street.

But no account of London art can be complete without the history of its graffiti. One of the first is a curse by one Londoner upon two others, written in a Roman hand—Publius and Titus were “hereby solemnly cursed.” It is matched by a late twentieth-century graffito recently recorded by the contemporary London novelist Iain Sinclair, “TIKD. FUCK YOU. DHKP,” and suggests a characteristic of London street-writing. “For the stone shall cry out of the wall,” according to Habakkuk 2:11, and in London the cries are frequently those of anger and hostility. Many are entirely personal, with no meaning except to the one who carved or sprayed the words upon a wall, and remain the most enigmatic features of the city; one moment of anger or loss has been inscribed upon its surface, to become part of the chaos of signs and symbols which exist all around. Outside Paddington station can be found “Fume” everywhere together with “Cos,” “Boz” and “Chop.” “Rava” can be seen upon the bridges of the south bank. “Great Redeemer, People’s Liberator” adorned Kentish Town Station in the 1980s. “Thomas Jordan cleaned this window, and damn the job, I say—1815” was written on an ancient window and on a London wall a Thomas Berry scribbled “Oh Lord, cut them with thy sword.” As one exponent of the art of graffiti put it to Iain Sinclair, “If you’re going to be around the city all the time, you’d better put your name up,” which is the reason why people over many centuries have simply written down their names or initials on any tractable surface with the occasional amendment of “was here” or more frequently “woz ’ere.” It is a way of asserting individuality, perhaps, but it becomes immediately part of the anonymous texture of London; in that sense graffiti are a vivid token of human existence in the city. They may be compared to footprints or handprints, laid into cement, which become part of the city’s fabric. Hand impressions have been found in Fleet Road, Hampstead, as mysterious and poignant as symbols carved on ancient stones.

Sometimes graffiti have a relevance to the immediate locality—“James Bone is a bad kisser” or “Rose Maloney Is A Thief”—where they serve as silent messages, the written equivalent of drum-taps in the jungle. But there are also more general admonitions. In one of his prose works Thomas More quotes a fifteenth-century slogan written upon many walls—“D.C. hath no P”—which can perhaps be deciphered with the help of More’s summary that it “toucheth the readiness that woman hath to fleshly filth, if she fall in drunkenness.” One may surmise that D.C. denotes “drunken cunts” but the “P” is mysterious.

Any particular year, over the last thousand, will provide its own litany of curses, execrations and imperatives. In 1792, for example, these were some of the graffiti: “Christ Is God … No Coach Tax! … Murder Jews … Joanna Southcott … Damn the Duke of Richmond! … Damn Pitt!” In 1942 the most prominent graffiti remained “Strike in the West Now!,” and in the later part of the century the two most formidable slogans were “George Davis Is Innocent” and “No Poll Tax.” The city seems almost to be speaking to itself by means of these messages, in a language both vivid and cryptic. Some recent graffiti have been more reflective in tone—“Nothing Lasts” painted upon a brick wall, “Obedience Is Suicide” upon a bridge in Paddington, “The Tigers of Wrath Are Wiser than the Horses of Instruction” inscribed above “Rangers,” “Aggro,” “Boots” and “Rent Revolt” on the corner of Basing Street, Notting Hill Gate—the last being a potent example of the phenomenon of clustering. A wall may remain inviolate for many years but, as soon as one graffito is placed upon it, others ineluctably follow in competitive or aggressive display. Aggression can often be associated with sexuality. Many of these messages have an anonymous sexual intent which suggests isolation as well as desire—“Oh please don’t cane me too hard master … 23/11 I am 30 I have a/place at Victoria SW/I love dressing up I am wearing/pink panties now.”

The proper locale for these harsh and impersonal messages of love is, naturally enough, the public lavatory. It has become the principal source of all urban graffiti; here, in confinement and secrecy, the Londoner speaks to the entire city with words and signs that are as old as the city itself. One attendant told Geoffrey Fletcher, the author of The London Nobody Knows, that “the lavatory in Charing Cross Road was the place to go if you want the writing on the wall … make your blood run cold, it would.” In fact London lavatories have been notorious for centuries, and in 1732 Hurlo Thrumbo printed at Bethlehem Wall, Moorfields, a compilation entitled The Merry Thought or the Glass window and Bog House Miscellany. We may extract from these some of the more salient and, perhaps, immortal epigrams. From the “bog-houses” of Pancras Wells comes

Hither I came in haste to shit

But found such excrements of wit

That to shew my skill in verse

Had scarcely time to wipe my arse.

There then ensues a dialogue or chorus of other costive notes in which “write” is frequently rhymed with “shite” and “London” with “undone.” The anonymous authors’ clothing is “undone,” literally, in the London “bog-house”; but perhaps there is also a more plaintive suggestion that they have themselves been “undone” in London. From the “bog-house” by the Temple comes

No hero looks so fierce in fight

As does the man who strains to shite

and upon a tavern wall in Covent Garden

There’s nothing foul that we commit

But what we write and what we shit.

Sometimes there is a grand riposte to this city scatology. “It is the vanity of degenerates,” one Londoner inscribed, “to write their names here.”

The other principal source of London graffiti has always been the prison house, from the inscription of Thomas Rose upon the wall of the Beauchamp Tower in the Tower of London—“Kept close/By those to whom he did no wrong. May 8th, 1666”—to the cell of a modern prison where one inmate has written “You may be guilty/But what must this/be like for those/who are not.” These men also have been undone in London. Thomas Mehoe writes in 1581: “bi-tertvre-strange-my-trouth-was-tryed-yet-of-my-libertie-denied,” with words painfully but carefully inscribed with an iron nail. They are still preserved within the Tower, and in that ancient prison are many carvings, crosses, skeletons, death-heads and hour-glasses carved as tokens or symbols of suffering. There are words which are supposed to provide comfort—“Hope to the end and have patience … Spero in Deo … patience shall prevail” which can be contrasted with the graffiti found in the modern London prison—“Home by May … This is where I spent most of my life … It was just one/time I never got away by someone who got caught … Treat me carefully/I’m seven years/bad luck.” In many inscriptions the prison itself seems to be treated as an image of the world, or of the city, which will perhaps lend further significance to another graffito found upon a London wall—“I cant breathe.”

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