Thursday, 17 May 2012

Signs of Life

There was a road sign that I used to see every morning on my way to work that seriously improved my day - a small white sign (nothing special), bordered in black, with three short words emblazoned across the centre:


A simple but direct message and one which always made me convulse with (rather demented) laughter (something that was, I suspect, rather disconcerting for all my passengers).

It’s not always easy to explain why things are funny (especially as, in this case, there is the implication of mass cruelty to feline quadrupeds), but it was the incongruity of it all, a sleepy, grass-grown country road flanked by ‘chocolate-box’ style thatched cottages freakishly combined with the stark warning to both motorists and cats that made me smile (even now). I guess if you add (as I frequently did at the time) the mental image of state officials, law-enforcement officers and representatives of Her Majesty’s government, all resolutely (and rather incomprehensibly) inflicting punishment upon the local feline population, then the whole thing takes on a whole new and rather darkly surreal turn.

Was this particular State-sponsored attempt at body part removal, I wondered, a punishment for perceived cat-crimes against humanity (defecating upon garden lawns) or was it a stark warning to both cats (for not eating enough mice) and cat owners (for their lack of pet control)? Whatever the case, as I passed the sign (and once the hilarity had died), I had the uneasy feeling that my progress would, one day, be blocked by a swarm of clawing, spitting, hissing, unfairly blinded moggies, all seeking revenge upon human-kind.

It makes you think doesn't it.....

.....well ok, perhaps it doesn’t, but it does highlight something which, for me, is a major (and utterly harmless) interest, namely sign watching. 

Attempts to modify negative human activities (such as vandalism or erosion) affecting areas of historic and natural interest using signage alone can, at times, be extremely successful, although it is fair to say that not everything works every time. Getting the right message across to the right section of society (the target audience) is, of course, rather important (otherwise why make a sign in the first place?), but not only do different people require different messages, but sometimes, just occasionally, the message itself does not appear to have been thought through all that carefully.

Some years ago there was a sign, prominently displayed, at the entrance to a small Medieval Castle in Wiltshire which read simply:


I suspect that the intent here was to dissuade any would-be treasure-seekers from looting a scheduled ancient monument protected by law, but this was one of those poorly thought out pieces of signage that, instead of warning people off, seemed to simply draw attention to the resource. “Thinking of Metal Detectoring” – “well gee no I wasn’t…but now you come to mention it, it does seem like quite a good idea….” Ultimately, it’s the sort of message that can have the opposite effect, positively encouraging members of the public to conduct a range of potentially damaging activities. 

In a similar vein, I’ve always felt that the swathe of signage that bombards British motorists with the message:


frequently has the opposite effect - instead of waking drivers up (or persuading them to stop at the next service station for a comfort break) these roadside questions get motorists thinking, “now that you mention it, I do feel a little tired”, before closing their eyes, drifting off into sleep and veering through the central reservation towards oncoming traffic. Something that would, I believe, have had the desired effect of waking motorists up and taking them out of their comfort zone, rather than reminding them of how just how tired they may (or may not) be, is something akin to a prominent 'hazard' warning such as:




Now such messages would definitely do it for me - there being no way that I would dare stop (or drift off to sleep) whilst driving through a designated were-wolf / vampire friendly zone. 

Another favourite, in my expanding collection of useful messages, was the sign at the Sutton Hoo Saxon Burial and Heritage Centre which reminded visitors (rather unnecessarily I thought) that there was:


Do people really need to be told this? Unless you possess either a clear belief in an after-life or of the success of corpse reanimation, surely the purpose (and sole use) of a cemetery is all rather self-evident.

A wonderful example of mixed messages (since you ask) is housed in the cubicles of the gentlemans public lavatory of a local National Trust property. This small sign, secreted above the flushing convenience itself, states that: 


Now this, I feel, is something that rather defeats the primary purpose of a toilet. If paper is, indeed, the only thing that may be deposited down the toilet, where should I hurl my own excreta? Should I venture to carefully fill the litter bins by the main car park, or should I utilise the well-tendered hedge outside the gift shop (as the foxes evidently do)?

Another popular tourist attraction in Dorset has, by the car park, a series of impressive metal containers emblazoned with the words:


“Thank you people of Poole”, I think as I pass by these bins “for collecting so much dog waste - now, er, what exactly would you like me to do with it.....?”

A few years ago, however, my interest in signage (and in the highly revered art of communication-bypass) got me into some trouble at work. The good people manning the staff canteen, obviously upset that certain individuals were clearly NOT considering their colleagues during mealtime, placed a sign on each table that read:


“Brilliant”, I thought when I first saw these messages, “I can now safely leave my food waste on the tabletop, rather than suffer the inconvenience of having to carry it all to the bins”. An over officious type (in a uniform) accosted me at the door and, pointing to my pile of lunch discard, politely enquired whether I was going to remove it. “No” I said (in my best patronising tone) “I was looking forward to seeing the self-clearing table at work – sounds very impressive”. He looked at me blankly. “You might want to change the message” I added helpfully, “something like ‘Please Remove your Rubbish’ or ‘Please ensure that the tables are clean after use’”.  I wasn’t getting through. Time to beat a dignified retreat. “Would you like me to ignore the self-cleaning capabilities of the table” I looked back expectantly (but it still showed little evidence that it was gearing up for action) “and tidy it myself?” 

The tabletop signs stayed for a couple of weeks, but I didn’t dare eat in the canteen again for 6 months. 

Anyway, to cut a long (and once again rather rambling) story short, this morning, on my way to site, I noticed that something on the route had changed for the worse. I guess that somebody had finally complained to the RSPCA about the high levels of localised pet torture in this particular part of Dorset for, although the familiar piece of highway signage remained steadfastly in place, the message had now been changed to:


Suddenly life seems a little less sweet.....


  1. Hilarious Miles! some ones I find amusing which I came across - products:-

    JOHNSTONS BABY OIL - keep out of reach of children

    SLEEPING PILLS - may cause drowsiness!

    ON THE BACK OF CAKE BOX - do not turn upside down (now they tell me).

    'CHILDRENS' COUGH MEDICINE - do not drive a car or operate machinery.



    1. I have another favourite, seen yesterday on campus in the gents toilets (a theme developing here) and which, I can only assume, was designed to get people thinking about doing masters programmes and generally setting better academic goals, positioned directly above the urinals and which said simply:


  2. Stuff the cats. A severe lack of road-based studs is going to blight my life now. Mental pictures of largely undressed Chippendales-standard street menders with the usual range of fnarr-inducing power tools, shiny helmets etc.

    I didn't even know they were there to start with and now they've been removed.


    1. Perhaps there is a link here, the Road Studs being removed by the council as their presence was so upsetting the cats who, as a reaction to the gratuitously shiny helmets, had been gouging their own eyes out....

      ...possibly - not sure I've thought this one through

    2. Hmm. It's possible that you may actually be *over*thinking it...