David Butterfield

The curious incident of Cambridge’s Latin graffiti

The curious incident of Cambridge's Latin graffiti
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A weird one, this. Yesterday, a short walk away from me in Chesterton, Cambridge, an enigmatic threat appeared in three-foot-high letters on a new row of upmarket houses flanking the banks of the Cam. But these weren’t the usual slapdash daubings. No, the letters were lavishly painted across four houses by a ladder-wielding vigilante ten feet above the ground. The stunt has made national headlines, not so much for the content of the protest as for its medium – Latin.

Well, it is and it isn’t Latin. It proclaims, Locus in domos loci populum! Purists will object that the Romans had to muddle through without the indulgent hyperbole of exclamation marks. True; but anyone with a smattering of Latin will see the bigger problem: however construed, the Latin is nonsense – ‘the place into homes, the people of the place’. Even as a ten-pinter, that is not going to wash as a slogan.

For most news outlets, however, it’s enough of a story that University-town dissenters deal in Latin: ‘only in Cambridge’, they smirk, could protesters rant in the language of Ancient Rome. Some reporters tentatively add that the Latin may be wrong. However, the interesting thing is not how the Latin is wrong but that it is totally wrong: every word misfires. With a little reflection on this genuine curiosity, the culprit’s profile starts to gain colour.

What then? A set of slips from whirring brain or adrenalin-riddled hand beneath the blanket of night? No, its uniform appearance twice on the walls puts paid to that. Or maybe a sign of the debasement of linguistic precision – even in Latin – in these Twitter-fuddled times? No, no. Instead, the gibberish springs from a belief in the omniscience of the online 'powers that be'. Here speaks the unwavering but unmeaning voice of Google. If you ask its online translator to render ‘local homes for local people’ into Latin, this is the twaddle that tumbles forth. Yet it shouldn’t be the story that the quasi-oracular Google can’t handle a heavily inflected language. I’ve already said my piece on its unfortunate role in the high-stakes business of self-graffiti. In grassroots revolts, however, this is something new.

There are indeed some real peculiarities here. First, it’s ruddy odd to use Latin as the language of street protest. But to get the Latin so very wrong points to the scantiest of overlaps on the Venn diagram: those who don’t know Latin but do know that Latin will have an effect (witness the flurry!). There are two ways of explaining this queer choice, but they are completely antithetical. On the one hand, it could be an attack on the hazy edifice of ‘The Establishment’. Latin has been the language of officialdom in Europe for most of the past 2,000 years, and the way to stick two fingers up to homo ille is to abuse him in his own code of Latin. On the other, this could be the city’s stand against the greed of faceless developers and the short-termism of civic planners: how better to attack the abuse of community values – the development pulled down the Penny Ferry, one of Cambridge’s few riverside pubs – than to speak in the lingua franca of the University that has been the city’s beating heart for 800 years? Perhaps there’s a thrill in picturing the big beasts of the housebuilding company frantically Google-ing the graffiti as their tears wash over the keyboard? Or perhaps – were this not too absurd – the Latin is deliberately debased to reflect the idiocy of corporate management-speak through the lens of historic Cambridge parlance?

I wonder. Other details in the graffiti suggest a rather atypical worldview. A side-door to one of the houses bids the Dollar, Euro and Yen signs to ‘go away’. Two things strike me here: disappointment, that the vowels of ‘away’ are represented by that most conformist of signs, the Anarchy symbol; and surprise, that the currency symbol for the Chinese Renminbi was ready at hand. Alongside this posturing with Latin and financial sigla, the name of the estate agents on the sale signs has been replaced with ‘local lives’: it’s the immediate community that’s being sold short. Thus far we have a defender of the local populace who opposes foreign investment – and perhaps immigration – while desiring both Anarchy in the UK and the services of a tax-averse behemoth of Big Data.

So who is behind this? All arrant speculation, of course, but the palaeographer in me says it’s a one-man job (no, this is not a gendered comment), and probably by a woman (ah, that is). I had reached this tentative conclusion before I spotted that the man painted on the adjacent ‘pedestrian walkway’ (a pavement, I suppose) now luxuriates in some painted accessories: a skirt, kitten heels and a mysterious brace of handheld objects – perhaps a nosegay of flowers and a Foyles bag, perhaps an industrial-strength padlock and menorah. Unfortunately, there’s no accompanying gloss to shed any light. But the notorious 'regendering' of the pedestrian-crossing icon from male to female in Melbourne last month flashes bright in the background.

A curious picture, then. Australian-inspired identity politics, but aversion to foreign influence? In a city of 74 per cent Remainers, where most of my colleagues cannot grasp what could motivate a Leave voter, could this be the voice of the downtrodden Brexiteer? Perhaps. But I somehow doubt it. At any rate, it’s unfortunate that a serious societal complaint is dogged by both imprecision and innuendo. I won’t be the only one hearing echoes both of Graham Chapman’s Brian from Monty Python, with his miscued Romanes eunt domus, as well as Steve Pemberton’s Tubbs from the League of Gentlemen, who lives through her ‘Local shop for local people’. We live in confused times.

Locally, at any rate, Latin is not the story. Elsewhere in town we’ve previously had graffiti of Ancient Greek, guanine molecules, quantum physics and pseudo-algebra. Instead, the real issue is Cambridge’s housing stock. For all the gung-ho talk about Osborne’s ‘Cambridge City Deal’, which promised in 2015 to inject a billion pounds into local infrastructure, this city that has only part pulled itself out of medieval quietude is now under pressure. As Ed West recently wrote, beautiful cities can lift the spirit, and Cambridge is no exception. Alas, many new buildings within the city struggle to hit the mark. Although there are myriad uglier houses than those under attack, no long-term architectural grace is on offer for a million pounds plus.

The average Cambridge house price is around £500,000, the third highest in the country, and 16 times higher than the average local salary. Few Cambridge workers have jobs to meet that sum, and yet fewer to climb the housing ladder for the first time. Still, a new row of houses clocking in around £1.25 million will sell without problem – albeit not to the local populace. This is not quite the London model, as only a handful of people are paid enough within Cambridge’s city limits to afford such properties. Instead, the money must come from outside the city, and perhaps, as the graffitist augurs, outside the country. Roughly a third of Cambridge sales are now to overseas buyers; some have genuine business in the city, most do not. In this context, domus loci populo loci may indeed be a valid graffito.

As I say, a weird one. Some 1500 years ago, the Vandals ransacked Rome and razed it to the ground. Yes, ‘only in Cambridge’ will vandals instead take up the language of Rome as a weapon. But in doing so the point of the protest has been blunted by these strange pretentions of the protestrix.

Dr David Butterfield is the Director of Studies in Classics at Queens' College, Cambridge