Un-neat and Untidy

I spent time last week discussing with a student whether or not graffiti was an index of social disorder.

Index of Social Disorder – Alatamira Bison

Index of Social Disorder – Alatamira Bison

My student took the view that more graffiti equals more disorder. She noted, correctly, that one of the spars of New York’s zero tolerance policies of the 1990s which so successfully returned the city to a state of relative law and order after decades of spiralling decline was the responsibility given to residents for maintaining the fabric of their own buildings. Thus, no broken windows, and no graffiti.

The root of this approach lie, ironically, in the liberal thinking of Jane Jacobs who wrote, in The Life and Death of the Great American Cities, of the need for people quietly to police their own streets and communities, to be empowered to work on the fabric of the city themselves.

I do not disagree. Many projects of urban regeneration, from Bogota to Detroit, have focussed on getting people on to their own streets again.

However, I disagreed about the graffiti. I wrote a post some time back about the Heron graffiti that has sprung up like a rash across the walls of Cambridge. I am not unpleased to see it, when I do. And while some graffiti aspires to the level of street art, I am not suggesting that graffiti is pleasant to look at, or that its value lies in its decorative functions. I just think it is a sign of life. It would be too easy, I think, to equate signs of disruption or disorder with malaise; graffiti is a form of protest, certainly, and not always an elegant or mature one, but a tag is a reminder that not everyone is going to assert their presence on the earth and in the city by voting and owning a house. And I am not convinced that I want to live in a society which outlaws chewing gum, or hounds graffiti artists in a policy of zero tolerance, merely because we (i.e. the established) prefer things in general to be neat and tidy.

Cambridge, of course, is neat and tidy, on the whole. I was speaking with my student about New York, London and Paris. But Cambridge has its untidy corners, its moderately hard edges, its low-grade wildness. If you’re not careful, someone might pinch your bicycle. Or tag your wheelie bin. And life goes on.


Black Heron

Grey Heron

Grey Heron

“With evil people neither stay nor go;
The heron died for being with the crow.”

We are obsessed with the problem of meaning. Things, phenomena (for instance, black herons – bear with me) must always mean something.

Someone mentioned Paul de Man to me over dinner last night (not a common occurrence, I should point out), in the context of his worrying about our obsession with meaning. The thirst for meaning in an object (in a poem, say), obliterates our sense of the poetics of that object. Thus literature always seems to need explaining, where we should perhaps start by according it an explanatory power of its own.

Indigestible stuff, I think you will agree. But it put me in mind of herons, the spate of black heron graffiti, to be precise, which has erupted around Cambridge. If you keep your eyes open, you will see black (and occasionally white) herons in silhouette, and in various poses, spray-painted in odd spots around the city. In an underpass near my house there is a heron leaning back casually; I have seen pictures of a heron flying a kite, and a heron on a skateboard.

What, we are forced to wonder, do they mean? What is the significance of them? Their mysterious appearance, connecting obscure corners of the city, was of course most of their charm. Unfortunately, from that perspective, the artist has now come forward and explained his intention: he wished to grace Cambridge with a distinctive ‘urban mascot’. The heron, being native to these parts, ticked the boxes.

So now we know. A simple enough matter. But the heron is a bird that always seems to mean something. They are unpopular with other birds (you frequently see them being mobbed by crows along the river); in flight they are dramatically large, at rest, preternaturally still. They are solitary hunters. Small wonder if fen-dwellers (a curious enough breed themselves) accorded them magical powers, understood them as harbingers of bad luck.

And the couplet, at the top of the post, about the crow and the heron? What does that mean? I could say, because my thirst for meaning is as deep as the next man’s, but I do not want to exhaust its explanatory power. Or something.