The large-scale redevelopment of Paddington Basin, which began a few years after the original publication of this piece, has meant that few graffiti survive there today. But “Far Away Is Close At Hand…” was photographed in the 1980s (see above), by Nigel Rees, host of the long-running BBC radio 4 quiz show “Quote…Unquote”, and he subsequently devoted a programme to the history of the inscription.
Listening to a recording of the programme I was puzzled to hear him say that the wall the slogan was painted on had been demolished in 1981, shortly after the picture was taken. Puzzled, because I was quite sure I’d seen it more than a decade after that, in 1995, when I wrote the piece above. Could that have been in a dream? An acid flash-back? Or was it possible that the inscription, rather than being touched up by conservationists, as I suggested half-seriously in my original piece, had actually been recreated by latter-day retro graffiti artists?
Remarkably, it seems that the latter is the case. The version I saw was a reproduction of the original inscription, one made ten years after the destruction of the first—repainted by the original graffitists. Here is an extract from Nigel Rees’ reply to my e-mail to him enquiring about this:
You are quite right to say you saw it in the 1990s. It was repainted by the original artists and then removed again. In December 2004—after I had mentioned the whole business on “Quote…Unquote”—they wanted to do it for a third time but were defeated by the modern security apparatus at Paddington.
Nigel Rees published some further observations on the inscription in “Quote…Unquote” Vol 14, No 1, January 2005 (with additions from a later version of the same piece in his Brewer’s Famous Quotations, 2006). These include an account of a mention in the heavy-handed satirical Peter Simple column in the Daily Telegraph.
In the 1970s, Rees writes, “passengers going in and out of Paddington Station in London were beguiled or puzzled by words painted at the side of the track: ‘Far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere’.”
“This elegant graffito,” Rees continues, “became almost famous—not least when Michael Wharton, the ‘Peter Simple’ humorous columnist on The Daily Telegraph, discussed the work of the unknown artist as if he were an Old Master:
Dr Anita Maclean-Gropius’s monumental catalogue raisonné, ‘The Master of Paddington’ (Viper and Bugloss, £65), published last year, dealt in detail with all the works confidently or tentatively attributed to the Master and his School. It was, of course, savaged in a long review by Dr J.S. Hate, Keeper of Graffiti at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in the British Journal of Graffitology …
In Rees’ account of the fate of the inscription, he explains that he eventually got round to photographing it in May 1981 just as builders were demolishing the wall on which it was painted in order to redevelop the land behind. It was pointed out to him that the first six words had been taken from the poem “Song of Contrariety” (1923) by Robert Graves:
Far away is close at hand
Close joined is far away,
Love shall come at your command
Yet will not stay.
He concludes his account of the affair with a communication that he received over twenty years later, in 2004, when he was contacted by a listener named Helen Issler, who told him that the “Master of Paddington” was, in fact, two people: her husband, Dave Hall, and his brother Geoff. They had made the painting, she told him, “one Christmas Eve (no trains) in probably 1974 or thereabouts.” Being graduates of Oxford University, they placed it so that it was visible on the Oxford line.
Helen Issler confirmed the Graves allusion. But the last four words, she suggested to Rees, came from lines by another poet, the classicist Ruth Padel. Rees contacted Ruth Padel and asked for her assistance in tracing the quote. At first she could only think of her first poetry collection, in 1985, a pamphlet called Alibi (“alibi” being Latin for “elsewhere”).
“But then,” Rees records, “she remembered she had also written an article in Classical Quarterly entitled ‘Imagery of the Elsewhere: Two Choral Odes of Euripides’”. Dave Hall, the graffitist, agreed that this was the source.
“Yes, that was it,” he told Rees. “I don’t think I ever read the Classical Quarterly article, but it was a great title.”
Nigel Rees asked Ruth Padel what the inscription might mean, and why it struck a chord with so many people. She commented:
“Well, it is by a railway line, carrying people far away. And metaphor, according to Aristotle, means carrying across from one place to another. Those choral odes of Euripedes were basically about going away.”
In the tagging world, meanwhile, in the years since the first publication of the article above, the graffiti artist Drax has created a online display of his artworks (one of these is reproduced above). In the end Drax’s designs have fared better than the World Tailfins commissioned by British Airways. Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, thought that the customised tailfins were unpatriotic and told the head of British Airways so. They were dropped soon afterwards—less than a year after they were introduced—and the Union Jack restored. This is a shame; many of the designs worked very well. The tailfins are long gone and painted over now, but images of them have been preserved by Lockon Aviation Photography, from whose online archive the illustrations at the head of this article are drawn.