Saturday, 17 September 2011

the writing on the wall

And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.
Daniel 5:25 (Authorized Version).
Writing on walls and other public surfaces has a long history, and a part of that history is commemorated in the well-known phrase that I’ve used as the title of this post. Belshazzar’s feast is probably the only recorded example of graffiti by supernatural agent, so it is disappointing to note that the account credited to Daniel was probably written several hundred years after the event and is thus an unreliable source.

However, Belshazzar’s feast may have been intended as an allegory of the conflict between the sacred and the profane, the intended message being that God will punish profanity:
3 Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in them.
4 They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.

Daniel 5 (Authorized Version).
This mirrors a similar polarization of opinions about modern graffiti, which are seen as either art or vandalism, with few people taking a more nuanced view. It is true that most graffiti have no aesthetic worth and are unsightly, but occasionally something is written that resonates with its readers.

In the 1950s, few mainline railway carriages had an open-plan design. Most had a corridor along one side, with a series of compartments separated from the corridor by sliding doors. In each compartment, above the window, there was a recessed chain that ran the length of the carriage. This was the ‘communication cord’ and was there for use in an emergency. Pulling the chain would result in the automatic application of the train’s air brakes, so below the chain was printed the following warning: ‘Penalty for improper use £5’.

One day, I entered an empty compartment and sat down. I quickly noticed that an anonymous wag had written an amusing piece of doggerel directly above the communication cord. I didn’t write it down, but even now, more than fifty years later, I can still remember it:
If five pounds you can afford
Try your strength and pull this cord.
If five pounds you do not own
Leave the fucking thing alone.

I’ve often wondered whether the author wrote this verse in any other carriages, and whether anyone else who saw it still remembers it. Perhaps not.

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