Semiotics

 

I turned up at the gym after work yesterday and saw a notice over the door to the sauna. Not that I would want you to think that I am the sort of person who uses a sauna, or, for that matter, the sort of person who uses a gym.

It said "Please show some consideration for other members and wear a towel. Not everyone wishes to see your bits." That's verbatim.

I found this a little bit distressing, because it implied that at least some people did want to see my bits, which implies a lapse of aesthetic judgement on their part. I swear I only just noticed the double entendre around the word "members". Why the committee decided to put this notice up is anyone's guess. I think that given the proximity of showers, changing rooms and urinals, that to suppose that anyone was likely to be embarrassed or threatened by nudity in the steam room was probably a fallacy.

I blame word-processors. It only takes two mouse clicks and half an hour swearing at the sheet feeder and anyone can produce smart looking documents in 60 point times roman. With such communicative power on our desktop, we can rarely see a wall without sticking something vacuous on it. If Microsoft Word had been around 400 years ago, Martin Luther would never have got around to nailing his thesis to the church door. He'd have spent the evening messing around with the font size and found out the next day that the Reformation had broken out without him.

Most of these signs are well-brought up and good mannered. One recently popped up in the Bristol coffee shop where I do a lot of my writing. It said "Please don't put your feet on the seats; Anyone eating food not purchased here will be asked to leave." The word "please" made all the difference. Not "Thrown out", not "Charged corkage", merely asked to leave.

"You, Sir, I have reason to believe, have nipped over the road, purchased a coffee-flavoured warm milk drink from Starbucks, concealed it about your person, and are currently consuming it on our sofa. I'm afraid I must ask you leave."

"No, actually, I don't think I will."

"Right you are then, fair enough."

I think that the signs were actually put up for the benefit of the fluffy ginger cat that has recently adopted the shop. It climbs on the tables, puts its paws on the furniture and I wouldn't be surprised if it has occasionally brought a mouse or budgie purchased in some other shop onto the premises. It stretches out like a furry spring across the table, then notices the signs and wanders out into the garden.

There was a recent spate of robbery in the block of flats where I live: someone was stealing letters from the pigeon holes, washing from the washing machines and then in one of those acts of hubris which always brings down the master criminal, the actual washing machines themselves. The residents pulled together and acted decisively to protect their property. We stuck up a notice which said "Would whoever it is who is stealing other resident's post please put it back."

The English police, or Bobbies as they are never called, adopt a similar attitude. There's a notice in the town centre which says "Police Notice: Please Park Legally." We don't bother with parking tickets in this country, you see, we just say "Please". Near the Abbey in Bath, there's a sign which reads "It is an offence to consume alcohol here after you have been told not to by a policeman." That tells you where you are: that locates you in muddle-England. Please sir, would you mind? Road signs which say "Thirty miles an hour, or thereabouts at your discretion provided you aren't in a hurry" and "Keep off the grass, where possible, unless your dog needs a poo." When the police arrest murderers, they say things like "I wonder, Sir, if you would mind accompanying me to the Station" to which the felon replies "No, I'm afraid I'm rather busy hopping on a train to South America" whereupon the police go out on their bicycles and stick up "No murdering" signs all over town. There are the signs on busses which say "Please give up your seat if glared at by an old lady or cripple." There used to be signs in Gents toilets which said "Now wash your hands" and "Please adjust your dress before leaving." If anyone knows what the equivalent signs were in the Ladies, please don't tell me. There are signs above the wash basins in my office which say "Do not drink". I've always been tempted to scrawl "Do not gamble" and "Shun fornication" underneath. When the caretaker put up a notice saying "Please flush the toilet after use" I actually did add the words "And don't forget to clean your teeth and say your prayers": the only piece of graffiti I have written in my whole life, and I'm ashamed to say I wrote it on a post-it note.

There are signs, however, that all this is gradually changing. The notices are beginning to stop asking nicely. They are becoming threatening, sinister; nagging. Shop windows never used to say anything worse than "Threepence off" and "The best apples this side of Milton on the Pond". They now have official looking notices with threatening logos, and messages which say: "School attendance really matters, truancy is really very naughty. Be a sneak, tell on your friend if he's bunking off. He'll thank you for it. " A more specific one in the Broadmead shopping mall said that any child found on the premises in school hours would be sent back to school "in a police car." Surely any normal child would regard a ride in a police car as a major incentive to misbehaviour? And what's wrong with these kids, anyway? They bunk off school, risking public exclusion, having their grant docked or whatever it is they do to naughty children nowadays, and they can't think of anything more imaginative to do with the time than hang around outside Marks and Spencers? (I have often said that the three greatest evils I can imagine are, in order, being made to join the army, being sent back to school, or being sent to prison, but I must admit that having to spend more than 20 minutes in Broadmead comes pretty close.)

This is, of course, only the thin end of the wedge. If the little Tom Sawyers were to venture onto the streets outside Broadmead, they would see signs hanging on the lamposts saying, "Doesn't it give you are warm fuzzy feeling of security, like a bunny rabbit in its lovely warm hole to know that your every move is being recorded by a closed circuit TV camera, so watch it sonny."

That, of course, is where it ends up; the gentle signs which ask you if you wouldn't mind doing something sensible like a good chap vanish, and slowly, the threatening ones appear. "No rough sleepers", "We request that you do not give money to beggars, they are probably only Romanians", "Are you quite sure your children are behaving themselves, because its you who'll go to jail if they aren't", "Big brother is watching you."

Signs of the times.

 

 

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