arrow, board, destination-2564.jpg

Sign Language

                                                                                                                                                        Apple Tree Cottage


                                                                                                                                                        11 July, 1978

We are in full summer, but July can be treacherous here, and since the beginning of the month it has rained every day.  There is a wedding next Saturday between Jane, “spinster of this parish” as the vicar said when reading the banns last Sunday, and John, bachelor of the parish of Hillside, which is a couple of miles away to the west. We have suffered many wet days in a row, so all being well, if the law of averages carries any weight here in Somerset, Jane will be lucky and be married in the sun.

Let me moan for a few paragraphs now. No good will come of it but I may feel better for getting it off my chest. I had to take the train to London last weekend and on the journey, somewhere between Bristol Temple Meads and Bath Spa, I began to wonder if we are fast becoming a nation of illiterates.   It struck me how little text there is on notices nowadays. Look around on your next journey and check the notices when you go to a train station or an airport.  Very few are written.  There may be one or two, hangovers from the dark ages when people could still read, but in general we don’t have notices now. We decipher signs.

On my train to London there was one telling us not to smoke; this was a black cigarette with a big red bar through it.  But who is tempted to light up a black cigarette anyway?  On the same window there was another sign showing a bottle with a bar through it.  Ah, a non-drinking compartment I thought, but, no, it turned out that we were being told not to throw bottles out of the window.  I had never thought of doing this but that sign with its message of “Thou shalt not” woke in me a sudden desire to throw out a whole crate full of bottles. The countryside is pretty in July but I could hardly see it through the window as the signs blotted out the view. There was one of a man with a bar through him.  So we are not to throw fellow passengers out of the window?  I looked around for suspect passenger throwers. Perhaps the burly rugby player over in the corner?  Could be, I thought.  No, it was merely a sign asking us not to lean out of the window.  I looked around for potential suicides.

Trains are prolific in signs but airports have even more.  Do more illiterate people use planes than trains?  First, there are the toilet signs.  On these, fat dumpy men and fat dumpy women indicate the doors where fat dumpy men and women should enter.  Women always wear triangular dresses on these signs.  I have never seen a sign for women wearing jeans. Nor have I ever seen a woman wearing a triangular dress.

‘Meet you under the station clock’ we used to say, and this worked, but airports are different. At our airport there is a sign for where we have to meet people.  This sign is of two people shaking hands (there may be rub-noses signs in other parts of the world) on all sides of an enormous cube hanging from the ceiling.  Arrows on the cube point down to the floor, where there is a large red X marking the spot.  Other large red arrows further away on the floor also point to this mystical meeting place.  I have never seen anyone daring to stand in it, let alone two people actually meeting each other there, but I have noticed weary passengers pushing trolley loads of suitcases summon the energy to make a detour round this magical square as if it were hallowed ground.  Over 2000 years have passed since the wisdom of Socrates and Plato, and we have come to this.

Other mystifying signs are those indicating “This side up”. There are some with umbrellas, or are they champagne glasses? No doubt the boxes are put on their ends, sides and tops just as much as in the days of the “This side up” label.  Even that was not immune: our Post Office once had a new lad who, when handed the labels, stuck one on every face of the parcels, just to be on the safe side.

So signs are a sign of the times.  Soon we will not write to each other anymore.  We will send a page of signs.  ‘I love you (two lips kissing) more than I love her (girl with triangular skirt).  Meet me (the shaking hands one again) in the park (three round trees) after dinner (knife and fork plus stars if it was worth it). Bye for now (waving hand).’ It is sad, but we are seeing the demise of the love letter when words helped us say what we felt.   

Soon we will all have to go to sign school to be able to cope.  And books?  They will be stored in strange places called reading rooms for the old-fashioned few who still like to read some text, just for old times’ sake.