READING THE SIGNS

Everywhere we go we are surrounded by signs. I’m not talking about omens from the gods, but instructions and demands from ministries and councils and everyone in authority, plus some people with no authority whatever. As a conscientious citizen, I try to read them all, and obey some of them.

Have you noticed how rarely they tell you what to do, and how frequently they tell you what not to do? No ball games, no parking, no skateboards. They worry me, you know. I feel as though I’m constantly displeasing someone. I’m the sort of person who does what he’s told, but it’s not always possible: “Place Litter Here.” But I don’t have any litter. “Queue This End.” What for? I don’t want anything.

Quite often two harmless messages are juxtaposed and become rather sinister: “Brown’s Hotel: Keep Clear.” Or: “Jesus is Here for You: No Parking.”

Others are a temptation to commit misdemeanours you wouldn’t have thought of: “Do Not Chain Bicycles to These Railings.”

Not every notice appears to contribute to civilisation. How about the following from the M25 motorway: “This Sign Not in Use.”

It’s the fashion in offices, as at home, to have separate receptacles for every imaginable kind of rubbish. How disturbing, then, to turn up for work one morning to find there was only one wheelie bin, firmly labelled: “Other Rubbish.”

Sadly, the authors of signs are not always tactful. From a church hall in Kent: “Low self esteem group meets Thursdays. Please use rear entrance.”

Then of course there are the advertisements. I’ve never been a fan of special offers, because if there’s 50% off shoes they won’t have my size, and if there’s a two for one deal on selected shirts you can be sure there’ll be only one I would wear. Here’s an extremely special offer spotted in the window of a bar in Croydon: “One free drink between 5pm and 6pm, Thursdays only, on your birthday.”

Other attempts to secure my custom have also been unsuccessful, even this very reasonably phrased one: “Why not de-rust your old milling machine?”

A notice next to the flat caps in Marks & Spencer once boasted: “All our hats are made with teflon.” But what is the purpose of a non-stick hat?

Some announcements I find frankly unappealing, such as this Churchillian effort in a Bexleyheath pet shop: “Now is the time to worm your dog!”

I miss the familiar road signs of my childhood. Where now are the directions to Hatfield and the North, and why did they settle on Hatfield rather than somewhere more exotic? And why was there no corresponding sign to Romford and the Orient, or Locksbottom and the South Pole?

How sad they removed the sign which made my father weep when searching for somewhere to leave his car: “No parking on this side of the street on alternate Wednesdays.”

You may wonder why I’ve told you all this. Rest assured, it has helped me to unburden myself. Thank you for reading. I shall leave you with an instruction from a roadside in Keston: “Bag your own manure.”