Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

‘Peekaboo, peekaboo, here’s looking at you’

Long ago, in an era shrouded by those notorious meteorological phenomena the mists of time, I was working in the Covent Garden area of London as a publisher’s editor and the Resident Wise Woman spent her days as an arts administrator, working mainly with a group called Covent Garden Community Theatre (CGCT), which combined theatre and political comment and puppetry in a way that anticipated the more famous satire of Spitting Image, which hit the television screen soon afterwards.

Very much of their time, CGCT nevertheless found satirical targets that would not be out of place today. One of these was the prevalence of surveillance, nailed in an amusing song (we had it once, on a vinyl LP, long unplayed) called ‘Cunning B*ggers’ (I use the aposiopesic asterisk not out of mealy-mouthed prudery but due to my fear that today’s surveillance of the internet will penalize me in some way if I resort to what might be seen as obscenity). This song, of course, was about the use of listening technology. No mobile phones to tap in those days, but spies had bugs, and bugs could get anywhere: ‘We can put bugs in your clothes, We’ll put two bugs up your nose, And we cover other openings as well’, went the song. (I quote from memory, as I do in the heading to this post.)

I was reminded of all this today as I made the trip along Cheltenham’s Fairview Road to the junction with Hewlett Road, to see the new graffito, attributed to the artist known as Banksy. Here are trench-coated spies with their listening devices, and we are meant to remember that Cheltenham is home to GCHQ and that, across the other side of town, hundreds of highly trained linguists sit listening to and analysing the polyglot babble of the world’s airways – all in the interests of national security, you understand. The painting is amusing, alludes to an issue that’s rarely far from the headlines these days, and, in its positioning near a telephone box in Cheltenham, is clever and knowing. There’s also something curiously old-fashioned about it. The hats and coats, the big tape recorder and microphones – even the fact that it needs a public telephone to make its point – none of this equipment would fit up your nose, though it might get up your nose.

For many, though, the sinister side of surveillance takes a backseat in the presence of the Banksy. When I arrived at the telephone box, it was a case of joining a queue. Around twenty people were waiting to photograph themselves and their friends inside the box, surrounded by the spooks. We might resent the presence of the b*ggers, but we do not let let them get us down. The graffito has a similar demotic appeal to the 1970s work of CGCT. So form an orderly queue, and watch your language.

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Some further thoughts and links
The telephone box, by the way, is a KX100 kiosk, a type created by DCA Design and introduced in 1985. It was part of a modernizing move that came soon after British Telecom was privatized. Designed to be easy and inexpensive to clean and maintain, these glass, aluminium and steel boxes were installed widely but were never as popular as the older red boxes, perhaps because they're meant to blend transparently into the background rather than  asserting themselves as the much loved red phone boxes do.

Graffiti is, of course, controversial and illegal. In some cases, however, local communities embrace particular graffiti – because these actually enhance their setting or because people approve of the work or the sentiments it embodies. This particular example has already attracted defacement, swiftly followed by rescue by locals. There’s a news story about this here.

Another story highlights the hope that the Bansky will put Cheltenham ‘on the world culture map’.

And finally, for now, another report details a local plan to protect the work with perspex.


The Greenockian said...

Love it! Very clever.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, the reaction to a Banksy appearing these days appears to be to immediately remove and sell it. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-27050321 (although it now appear to have been moved to the Bristol museum)

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

In some cases, graffiti is better than the insultingly blank wall it covers. If planners insist on large spaces of bare concrete (or perfectly plain walls in unexciting stretcher bond, which is almost as bad) we can see the desire to decorate it as answering some primal human aesthetic need, although the product is often unsatisfactory. I wonder that the civil engineers at Eastbourne, for instance, with many better examples nearby, put so much smooth concrete into the supports of the bridges of the new main road into the town: if those spaces now look like the worst painting-galleries of the North or Midlands, whose fault? Couldn't civil engineers be CIVIL enough to give us grooved or patterned, or even shallow traceried gothic arches? Patterned concrete attracts fewer independent artists! Since concrete arrives in liquid form, why not?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you all for your comments. I agree about the blank walls. As it happens the painting in my post adorns a very dull blank wall at a busy and very public interchange – a prime site, if you will.