I was driving out of the far side of Exeter (sounds a bit Twilight Zone, that, I just mean the eastern edge not the western one) when I passed a wall on which, in very large capitals, the word ALWAYS was written. Someone had obviously taken some care with the paint – I couldn’t have been so neat if I’d been using a biro.
But what on earth did it mean? Was it a message posted by one loved one to another? Was it some form of amateur wayside pulpitry? Had the painter been interrupted in the construction of a longer message (ALWAYS KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD AND NOT THE ADJACENT WALL, perhaps)? Had someone perished at that very spot – it was at a fairly dangerous corner – and was this a subsitute for the flowers-and-teddy-bear memorials, the post-Diana shrines which pop up here and there in the event of a fatal accident? Was it the name of the house behind it? It might have been a piece of conceptual art, designed to start a debate about the nature of permanence – a bit like the piece I saw in the Pompidou Centre, in the 1970s, which was in a frame, typed, and simply said THERE IS AN ARGUMENT GOING ON. In front of it, there was an agitated knot of viewers. Someone was saying, ‘That’s not art,’ and someone else was saying, quite loudly, ‘Yes it is.’
It started me thinking about other walls and other messages I remember. There used to be one on a bridge in Warwickshire, near a small village with the possibly unfortunate name of Crick. It just said HOME RULE FOR CRICK. That had also been executed very faithfully and with a steady hand, too. It was there for at least a decade, and who knows, it may still be there. People are inclined to leave well alone. Over thirty years after a colleague had chalked up a sign for a parents’ evening on the brick outside the room at the college where I worked, it was still there.
There was a vogue, too for adding the word OK to any message, most notoriously the painted slogans GEORGE DAVIS IS INNOCENT OK which appeared around London, in the 70s. Davis was a career criminal whose wife led a campaign to prove he was not guilty of a particular theft. From memory, he was exonerated – and was picked up for a different burglary some time later, and banged up again. His wife left him. Variations began to appear, e.g. WYATT EARP IS AT THE CORRAL OK. (I say ‘there was a vogue’, but I’ve spotted that, after the organic fruit-smoothie business Innocent was bought by Coca Cola, head-liners have revived it with COCA COLA IS INNOCENT OK.)
And then there was the case of Astrid Proll.
Proll was a minor member of the Baader-Meinhof gang, who escaped from custody in Germany, and came to London. She was spotted some years later, and there was a fairly high profile extradition case, which led to lots of FREE ASTRID PROLL messages appearing. It did not take long before wags added WITH EVERY PACKET to the original message.
My father claimed he had seen a similar trick played on a wayside pulpit poster in Liverpool at a time when Ian St. John (known as ‘Sainstie’ to his supporters) was a member of an all-conquering Liverpool football team. I don’t think my father went to Liverpool in his life, but it was still a good story. The wayside pulpit had asked WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF CHRIST CAME BACK? Someone had carefully added SWITCH ST. JOHN TO OUTSIDE RIGHT.
I will keep one eye on ALWAYS.