Theodore Dalrymple

Global warning | 27 October 2007

For a British patriot, it is a great relief to go to Marseilles.

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At last somewhere in Europe as filthy and littered as almost the whole of Britain! If we can’t make ourselves better — and of course we won’t, so long as the final purpose of our public service is to employ the people employed by the public service — we can at least rejoice in the degradation of others.

Indeed, in one respect Marseilles was worse than anywhere I have seen in Britain: for I have never seen so much graffiti anywhere in the world. Every concrete surface — and, to adapt the words of a well-known song slightly, there is an awful lot of concrete in Marseilles — was covered in the handiwork of — well, of whom exactly?

Am I wrong to see in the rise of graffiti as a phenomenon the inflamed egotism of mass self-importance, the desire at all costs to impose oneself upon the world? What else can account for the risk that young men run who deface the sides of a high bridge with their indecipherable yet supposedly unique calligraphy? Young men like risks — I was not averse to them myself, indeed still am not — but even the most pointless war seems replete with higher meaning by comparison with the ugly defacement of the inaccessible.

Of all the virtues, humility is perhaps the least in fashion. Who can admit, in these days of so many rights, that, actually, one is not very important, not only in the scheme of the universe as a whole, but in the scheme of one’s own immediate surroundings? Besides, as it says in a chain of French supermarkets, a customer is sacred: and what is life if not an expedition in a vast supermarket? Every man, then, is sacred to himself.

Unfortunately, the rise of mass self-importance coincided with the rise of sub-fascist modernist architecture. (I say sub-fascist advisedly, because to compare Le Corbusier to Mussolini is a gross and unjust slur — on Mussolini.) What are buildings inspired by Le Corbusier but open invitations to young psychopaths with no way of asserting their individuality but by following the lead of a lot of other young psychopaths?

There are few laws known to sociology, but I think I have discovered one: Le Corbusier-style housing plus a sense of entitlement and low-grade consumerism equal graffiti.

This is not, of course, to say that graffiti occur nowhere else, far from it. I went on from Marseilles to Venice, and imagine my patriotic pride when I realised how far our British culture had spread, when I saw on the wall opposite my hotel the letters acab clearly painted in white.

My heart swelled, a choking sensation came to my throat and a tear to my eye. These letters are tattooed in blue lettering on the skin of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of British criminals: all coppers are bastards or (once down the station) always carry a bible.

Perhaps, though, they stand for something else entirely in Venetian dialect. I am sure that one of the aesthete readers of this journal will step forward to enlighten me on this point.