It seems to me you used to get a better class of grafitti when I was a young man, or maybe I simply used to get around more. The loos in the old British Museum Reading Room were an epicentre of original and off-centre wit, a place where scholars and cranks (there is a difference, though admittedly the overlap was larger in those days) could offload barbed little aperçus about life, the universe, and the library staff. But interesting stuff could appear pretty much anywhere, or so it seemed.
The Situationists had raised the bar with their witty daubings in Paris 1968, of course. They ironised and sensitised the street as a canvas for ephemeral political art. I remember passing under a railway bridge on which someone had painted, in big block capitals, MAN UNITED! It took me several beats to realise this probably referred to football, and not political philosophy. Ah, well. The early, pre-gallery Banksy gave the French a run for their money, it's true, but the internet has now become the new, virtual "street", and returned the real ones to the "taggers", endlessly repeating those overweight personal logos that are as boringly sclerotic, stylistically, as heavy metal music.
One piece of grafitti which I read around 1974, written in a careful hand on the formica partition of a college lavatory, has stayed with me ever since. No, not the much-copied one written above the loo-roll dispenser ("Sociology degrees: please take one") and, no, not the even more factitious two-hander that joined the plaint "My mother made me a homosexual!"with the retort "Cool! If I get her the wool, will she make me one, too?" No, this one was to all appearances a quotation from a poem. It went:
On white sands sands
Scottish pipers run run
Whole movies flowed through my imagination when I read those simple, evocative words. It has the feel of a lament, not a triumph. These pipers are surely men out of place, far from the highlands and the streets of Glasgow, fleeing for their lives under a tropical sun. It makes me think of Zulu, not Chariots of Fire. For decades -- in a casual sort of way -- I have been attempting to find their source.
Now, there is a place called Mersa Matruh on the North African coast, which is famous for its white sands. It is also famous as the site of a battle in 1942, where Rommel's Afrika Korps routed British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops, before the tide of battle turned at El Alamein. When I noticed that, it seemed like it might be just the sort of place where Scottish pipers might have been running on white sands.
Not least because there also happens to be a piece of pipe music, a solemn march, called "The White Sands of Mersah Matruh", composed by Major David H.A. Kemble, of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards. I felt very close to a solution when I discovered that. But: that regiment was stationed there in 1940, leading up to the Battle of Sidi Barrani, which was an early Allied triumph against the Italians. As far as I know, no Scottish regiment was at the Battle of Mersa Matruh in 1942.
Of course, Scottish troops had been deployed along this coast before, in WW1. But there are plenty of other places in the world with white sands where Scottish pipers may have had cause to run, the British Empire having extended over so much of the globe, and Scottish regiments having so often found themselves at the "sharp end" of imperial blundering. But, so far, I have failed to identify the source.
Assuming, of course, there is one, and these haunting words are not just the spontaneous effusion of some poetic Scot with a biro and five minutes to kill.