Throughout all history, humans have tried to leave their mark on the world around them. This can be carving a name on a tree or a wall, like the people in Pompeii, and it can also be just smashing things you don’t like.
The statisticians tell us that vandalism is broadly in retreat even as there are cases in the papers everyday: a drunk teenager fined for damaging cars, windows smashed in churches, the Sycamore Gap tree chain-sawed in the night, and closer at hand, in Seaford, the breaking down of ten trees, planted only eight months ago.
Another heart-breaking local story is the extensive and ongoing vandalisation of the Shaun the Sheep Trail in Brighton. The background is that Martlets, the local hospice charity which provides essential support for people affected by terminal illness in Brighton, Hove and surrounding areas, hooked up with the great Aardman Studio and Wild in Art, creative producers of spectacular public art trails, to install 42 model Shauns around the streets of Brighton and Hove.
It is a fun project bringing together families, fundraisers, volunteers, schools, artists, community groups and businesses, all part of a drive to raise funds for Martlets’ work. Many people are not aware that the NHS provides only a small proportion of the funds needed to run hospice services and Martlets depends on fund raising and donations to be able to continue its work. There were similar exercises in 2016 and 2018 when first snails, then Snowdogs, were distributed around the city, raising more than £230,000 and £310,000 respectively,
Shauns under attack
The Shaun the Sheep Trail opened on 9 September, but no sooner had it got started than it was under attack. Within a week, four of the sculptures had been damaged. Some were graffitied, others just bashed in. The one near the Pavilion was knocked off its stand. The one on the Hove seafront, sponsored by local crime writer Peter James, was repeatedly attacked and latterly had ‘ACAB’ tagged on it: ‘all cops are bastards’. Shaun in the Sky, near the Clock Tower, has been taken away for repairs, the tenth sheep to be vandalised out of the 42 pieces.
Naturally everyone associated with this huge effort is upset. Staff at Martlets Hospice who work to provide comfort to the dying are frustrated and sad. Patients are dismayed. Judging by social media, the public is also unsettled. The artists have issued a statement: “We were excited to see our work go out on the streets and our hope was that they would be enjoyed by visitors and residents in Brighton & Hove…However, we have been deeply saddened by the way that a few people have treated our work.”
Martlets say each damaged sculpture could cost the charity up to £7,500 to repair and the risk is that some sculptures may not be able to be sold at auction at the end of November – when the hospice hoped to raise over £250,000. “Every damaged Shaun the Sheep is directly taking funding away from providing care and support for families facing dying, death and bereavement”, said a Martlets representative.
Powerlessness is all around
What’s going on here? The psychology of vandalism is of course much studied and no great mystery. Psychologist Fuellgrabe summarises how people, especially the young, can be driven by feelings of resentment and boredom: “Vandalism permits powerless individuals to strike out against the institutions which control them and to take charge of the situation themselves, arousing fear in others and raising their own self-esteem.”
And of course we can sense the powerlessness all around us. We know that in the current situation, where the cost-of-living crisis saps energy, where the climate emergency terrifies us daily, where the young can’t get a decent place to live, where there’s sewage in the sea, where the NHS is stretched to breaking point, that the young, especially, are disincentivised, disengaged and defiant. The truth is everybody is tired and lots of people are angry.
Power to the people?
And stoking the fire now is the concocted row about London’s Low Emission zone. The Daily Mail reports regularly on the smashing of Ulez cameras. The paper describes almost admiringly how “vandals were out in force once again yesterday”, a protester scaled a ladder to block a camera and “Locals rallied around the man,with one writing on Facebook: This made my morning, power to the people.” Not of course that the Daily Mail would ever endorse such a thing.
Others might though. Iain Duncan Smith, once a law’n’order advocate and former leader of the Conservative Party, told the Daily Mail he was “happy” that people in his constituency were: “cementing up the cameras or putting plastic bags over them. I am happy for them to do it because they are facing an imposition that no-one wants.” Is this the way we are going now? If you don’t like something, kick it in? And if it’s alright for men in balaclavas to break the Ulez cameras – 159 reports of cameras being stolen and 351 reports of cameras being damaged between April and August this year – what do we think of Brighton kids (or adults) booting in a vulnerable sheep?
Who will suffer?
Power to the people, the Daily Mail wants to call it. Of course, it’s always the people at the bottom of the foodchain who take the full brunt of this: the faeces and the paint spray and the broken glass. This weekend Sir Iain will be relaxing in his magnificent 17th century mansion in Buckinghamshire while the people of Lewisham go on struggling with the filthy air, and Martlets hospice forgoes some of the funds that could have made patients’ situation more tolerable. Plus ça change or what?
Let’s hope not. Martlets is appealing to everyone in the city to stop the damage and allow the fun to continue: “We are urging everyone in our community to spread the word of the need for our work, keep the Shauns safe and keep Martlets caring. Please don’t climb on them, don’t sit on them, don’t graffiti them. Instead, please donate to help us keep the trail live.”
Text SHEEP to 70460 to give £3 or visit www.shaunbythesea.co.uk/donate/