Bye Bye, Baby

The Genius loci was a Roman concept. It was the idea that a place was protected or overlooked by a guardian spirit. In modern times it has become watered down into a vague notion of the characteristic sensation of a particular area, building or location.

The Plantings at Staincross in Barnsley is a remarkable survival when every inch of spare ground is prime for more ugly housing. It’s a narrowish strip of undeveloped land sandwiched between Staincross Common (the Moorland Crescent estate developed in the 1960s was stopped by the land fault and thirty foot drop of the old quarry) and New Road, then Greenside and Sackup Lane on the other ends. It was my playground as a boy, and has been a place to walk generations of my Boxer dogs for the last thirty odd years.

One end of the Plantings (towards Greenside) is the already mentioned disused 19th Century (?) quarry, the other is the wooded area that gives the Plantings its name. Obviously as a young lad the most attractive end for me was the quarry. The rocks are spilt into two main faces, one with the ‘Penny Slot’, a thin corridor climbing through the rock, and then the seventy or so feet drop of the ‘Bulls Eye’. They are covered in graffiti. Which I don’t think detracts from their beauty. It is a cultural record of a time that is slowly coming to an end.

Graffiti has a long history, way before the highly collectable stencils of Banksy. Satirical portraits of long dead politicians have been found in the ruins of Pompeii and names of soldiers from Napoleon’s Grand Armée are to be found scratched into the Giza pyramids, alongside those of British Tommies from the First World War.

Most of the paintwork on the Plantings dates from the 1970s onwards. The birth of anti-social, rebellious behaviour is something that I associate with the 70s; and this before the slightly politicized, heavily marketed, and superbly hyped rebellion of Punk in the wake of the slightly politicized, heavily marketed, and superbly hyped Sex Pistols (though I recall a beautiful spray painted Pistols ‘tag’ on the back steps to the New Road Working Men’s Club in bright red aerosol). In those speciously innocent days such behaviour was more in the spirit of good natured irreverence – before the cheery, cheeky 1970s scamps had children who turned into the vicious, feral menace of today’s nuisance youth.

The earliest identifiable cultural reference on the rocks is a cream block capitals ‘Bay City Rollers’ (the ‘Penny Slot’ end) which gives the graffito a roundabout date of c. 1974-1977, with the colour being matched to a Dulux chart from 1975 as ‘Harvest Gold’, indicating in all probability the name was painted when Les, Woody and the wee lads were at the height of their popularity in 1975 and the classic line up was in place, before the various members had their troubles with drugs, lost finances and child pornography. This is one of my favourite pieces of graffiti. It evokes a time that I can only half remember (making it apt that the lettering is now partially covered with some later graffito) but when I do remember it I do so fondly, softly burned like an Instagram photo. And the Plantings define that yellow-tinted time, holding a lot of memories for me. Whether it’s sending my polystyrene Supermarine Spitfire over the chasm of the ‘Bulls Eye’ in pursuit of a German Messerschmitt Bf 109, and my Action Man parachutist bailing out after the dog fight, plummeting to the bottom when his parachute failed to open, or racing my Ammaco Silver Star BMX over the paths worn by dog walkers and jumping the homemade ramps (setting fire to some brush wood and having a burning Christmas tree stuck to the front of my bike stick in my mind), or the walks with my Grandma and Granddad, collecting acorns. The Plantings always connect me with my childhood in the same way that hearing the opening chimes of Bagpuss does or the E-Number rush from a mouthful of Space Dust. It’s Pooh’s A Hundred Acre Wood with broken glass and graffiti. I can even look back fondly now to the time I fell off one of the rocks while climbing – a drop of fifteen feet backwards, landing on the only bit of grass nestled between broken rocks.

The Plantings graffiti that I like the most are those that – like the Bay City Rollers daub – are those that I can date. Even if it’s just a nickname of say Flang 93 or Taf 96. I like to know when something was created. If I know when it comes from it allows me to have a moment of time travel. A micro-second when I can reach back and be there. And it’s for this reason that I would rather see a wobbly painted ‘Oasis’ or ‘The Smiths’ or even ‘Bucks Fizz’ or ‘Take That’, where I can have an educated idea as to when it went up, than an un-dateable cock and balls, an un-ascribable ‘tag’ or a nickname whose chronology is lost. Who and when was Browny *3? (It dates from before 2003, before you say anything, and has been there since the mid-1990s at least). And ‘Widdy’? And the highly formal ‘J. Bottomley’? Do they ever revisit the place? Are they still alive? And what of ‘Sooty’ (who a clue in the matching paint would suggest was a Leeds United fan back in the Glory Days of Revie, Clark and Bremner)? Did ‘Lynn + Mick’ marry, or did she spit up to lead something of a slacker life with ‘Haigy’, whose logo would suggest a penchant for marijuana? One man who unfortunately isn’t alive is Bon Scott. ‘Bon R.I.P.’, paionted onto the rocks in faded purple paint, which I can evidence has having been in place since at least 1980, is cultural gold and would make a brilliant photograph in any reissue of AC/DC’s Back in Black to show the impact the singer’s death had on his fans. And there is humour, such as the Anti-McLaren slogan of ‘Punk is Spunk’. Though the slightly larger than life-sized depiction of one man sodomizing another – painted in a two dimensional manner reminiscent of the Pharoah’s tombs in the Egypt’s the Valley of the Kings – with the legend, ‘Walla in action’ has almost disappeared through the effects of acid rain erosion. And amongst the thoughtless, occasional Swastika, there are some examples where a bit of skill and a modicum of planning has gone into some of the work (there would be nothing worse than being mid-way through ‘Showaddywaddy’ to find out that you’d run out of cliff face. The massive ‘Bucky’ and ‘Drydy’ in ten foot high letters with some nice 3D shading opposite the ‘Bulls Eye’ always catches my eye, and ‘Mog’ (these days hidden behind some Broom) is well thought out in its execution and use of serif touches.

My own name painted near to the shallow cave on the ‘Penny Slot’ end – in a dull brown/orange, the only gloss paint I could lay my hands on and which had been used to cover the barge boards of my mother’s house – has been lost under later work and the soft stone rubbing away. Which, along with the distance of time since the Rollers last worried the charts, Bon Scott’s passing, and the melting away of Flang 93 and Browny *3 and the rest, leads me to think that being a Genius loci must be a melancholy job. And, in these rapacious times, worrying. Pausing to take in the view of the power stations out towards Ferrybridge, then George Orwell’s despised Barnsley Town Hall three and a half miles away, before heading back home and contemplating the huge windmills up in the rural heights beyond Millhouse Green, that when back lit by the sunset on a winters day look like Calvary (an image I’m sure I’ve used before but has struck me with sufficient force over the years to use again), I walk with my two dogs and the Genius loci as he wanders the Plantings, a tartan scarf tied to his wrist, listening to the Highway to Hell album on a Sony Walkman, while time slips away and the future, like those feral nuisance youths, ceases to care.

New Road, Staincross, Thursday 18th April 2013