Signs of the apoc­a­lypse

Marlborough Express - - FRONT PAGE -

Signs and no­tices. They are as di­verse and de­vi­ous as author­ity it­self. I am in Dublin. You might think Dublin to be quirk­ily an­ar­chic, free from the tyranny of signs. Well now, the bath­room at­tached to my rented room is tiny. Swing a cat in there and the cat dies. En­try to the shower is via a slid­ing glass door pre­cisely the width of my­self aged 20. To get in­side aged 61 I have to shovel hand­fuls of self round the alu­minium door jamb, un­til there is more in­side than out. Af­ter that, the rest fol­lows with an audi­ble slurp.

A no­tice is fixed to the far wall of the cu­bi­cle. When I took my first shower I was cu­ri­ous to read it, but there was a jet of wa­ter be­tween me and it, and any­way, the print was too small. So, hav­ing la­dled my belly through the door I stepped into the shower. My foot shot from un­der me. It shot with a speed I could do noth­ing about. One mo­ment I was step­ping into the shower, the next I was ly­ing on the floor in the folded po­si­tion pop­u­lar with new­born wilde­beest.

The im­pres­sive thing about new-born wilde­beest is the speed with which they gain their feet and start gal­lop­ing away from preda­tors. Had there been preda­tors in the shower I’d have died. I lay for maybe two min­utes with the wa­ter play­ing amus­ingly over me while I set­tled my nerves and as­sessed the dam­age to knee, el­bow and skull, all of which had struck the glass with some vigour. Find­ing no pro­trud­ing shards of bone or ar­te­rial bleed­ing I even­tu­ally set about haul­ing on the plumb­ing to re­gain my feet. As I slith­ered up­wards like some­thing primeval, the no­tice on the cu­bi­cle wall came into view, trans­lated, thought­fully, into four lan­guages.

‘‘Dear Guest, rub­ber non-slip bath­mats are avail­able upon re­quest at re­cep­tion.’’

Am I alone in hear­ing the tin­kle of ma­li­cious plea­sure in the words ‘‘Dear Guest’’ and ‘‘upon re­quest’’? No, I thought not. It’s war.

Travel is rich in signs and no­tices be­cause in un­fa­mil­iar sur­round­ings you’re al­ways look­ing for in­for­ma­tion. But giv­ing in­for­ma­tion is never the pri­or­ity of the sign writer. As­sert­ing power is.

Au­thor­i­ties know they don’t de­serve the power they hold. They live in per­pet­ual dread that we’ll see through them, that we’ll scoff at them be­hind their backs, in front of their backs even, that we’ll gig­gle at their bald spots and their de­tumes­cence, point out their aw­ful ig­no­rance and worse breath, their sheer sub­ur­ban in­ad­e­quacy. So they fend us off with signs and no­tices that smack of the pol­ished jack­boot. Queue here. Stand be­hind red line. Strictly no ad­mit­tance.

But it does no good. We re­main dis­obe­di­ent and dis­or­derly. So the au­thor­i­ties are for­ever hav­ing to ratchet up the lan­guage un­til even­tu­ally they reach its shrill limit, as in a no­tice I saw last week. It was in Syd­ney air­port, as it hap­pens, but it could have been any­where that peo­ple are dressed in a lit­tle brief author­ity. It was the pri­mal scream of all school pre­fects newly grad­u­ated to long trousers.

Se­cure area: Unau­tho­rised pos­ses­sion of pro­hib­ited items pro­hib­ited.

Where does one start with such lan­guage? One doesn’t of course. If that is the state of their prose can you imag­ine the state of their un­der­wear?

But even this fails to equal the best sign of all time, which I first heard of years ago. They tell me it is myth­i­cal but I refuse to be­lieve it. The thing is too good.

Cau­tion: This sign has sharp edges.

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