The writing’s on the wall for Roger Ratcliffe

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It is a pretty rare event these days, but last week I came across a piece of graffiti in a pub toilet that made me chuckle. “My car has been graffitied,” someone had scrawled. “It’s a write-off.”

Okay, maybe a few drinks are an absolute prerequisite for laughter. But you’ll have to trust me on this, the real ab-splitting graffiti on that wall can’t be reproduced here thanks to its extreme smuttiness. Not for nothing did such jokes become known as toilet humour.

Sadly, these days there isn’t as much graffiti on walls as I remember seeing a few decades ago. (Note to m’learned friends: I am in no way inciting readers to deface property and commit an offence under the Criminal Damage Act.) In Leeds, the gents at the Eagle Tavern on North Street was just one place that used to be legendary, with people from far and wide going there as much for a good laugh as to quaff pints of its CAMRA-blessed real ale. Apparently the wall in the ladies was even fruitier but I never quite managed to pluck up sufficient courage to check it out.

In Bradford, another pub was renowned for its graffiti but when the toilets were redecorated the landlord provided a blackboard and chalk in the gents for anyone seized by an overpowering urge to be funny. Last time I looked, though, it was completely blank, a worrying sign of graffiti writers’ block.

Often the funniest graffiti has been words added to some earnest slogan put up by campaigners. Thus this famous example painted in huge letters on a bridge over a railway line outside Newcastle, “JESUS IS COMING”, beneath which someone had daubed: “Only if he changed at Darlington.”

It’s tempting to believe that the pithy humour that once found instant publication on walls – toilets or otherwise – is now kept for the far wider internet audience. For example, recently on Facebook I saw someone write apropos of nothing: “If you can’t spell Armageddon, don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world.” And on Twitter, this one definitely captured the spirit of toilet graffiti: “I’m never going bungee jumping – I came into the world because of a broken rubber, I’m not leaving because of another.”

One toilet graffitist even took leave of his readers by announcing that social media had made him redundant, then added: “To be fair, the writing’s been on the wall for some time.”

One name used to feature on most walls, Kilroy, but whatever happened to him? Not the seriously irritating former MP Robert Kilroy-Silk, who used to front a talk show on daytime TV, but the Kilroy whose name was seen from Scarborough across to Southport and from Tromso down to Timbuktu. I used to see “Kilroy was here” everywhere, and apparently the original Kilroy was a shipyard inspector who’d write those words in obscure corners of boats to let craftsmen know he’d appraised their work. Now, though, Kilroy seems to have retired.

But back to Leeds, and the gents wall in the Eagle Tavern. Scribbled in small writing on the massive mosaic of jokes, I once came across these words, which provide me with an excellent sign-off to my last column of the year: “Merry Christmas to all our readers!” ?
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter

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