Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sign of the Times

I am blogging in Birmingham, England this week, where I am teaching a week long seminar in Political Systems at the College for International Citizenship.  I always enjoy coming here, but I never cease to be amazed by the number of signs from some governmental authority telling me how to behave.  How do the British cope with it I wonder.

Soon after disembarking from the plane I was greeted by a sign that told me that taking photos was fobidden.  Another sign told me that smoking was forbidden. A few steps later I read the sign: "Please remove your passport from your wallet or passport holder".  As I joined the line, passport in hand, I saw the sign indicating "Do not use mobile telephones".  At the desk of the immigration officer I read the sign "Threatening behaviour towards airport employees will result in prosection".  Well, welcome to the UK - five signs instructing me or warning me how to behave, and I hadn't even officially entered the country yet.

In the train ride to Birmingham city centre I counted 14 signs on the train telling me how to behave. One sign read: "Place your light baggage on the overhead rack".  Another read: "Do not place heavy baggage on the overhead rack" and a third sign warned: "When standing, mind your head on the overhead rack".  I had no idea that overhead racks could be so dangerous, did you?  It is a wonder that I have survived until now, because back home in Switzerland we have no signs warning us of the dangers of overheads racks. 

Signs on the train told me that I musn't smoke, musn't listen to music that is loud and that if I eat I should be thoughful of my neighbours and not leave a mess.  I was told to pull a red cord if there is an emergency but warned that there is a fine for inappropriate use. If the train stops, a sign told me not to open the doors, but in case of fire I was told "Use hammer to smash emergency window".  Once again I read "Penalty for inappropriate use".  The doors of the train were fairly covered in signs that gave me a five step programme on how to exit the train via the doors.  Once again, I must admit, I had no idea that exiting through a door on a train can be so harrowingly dangerous.  It is a wonder that anyone is left alive in Switzerland, where we thoughtlessly step out of trains without reading the non-existent signs, obviously risking life and limb everytime.

The best of all was an announcement that I had never seen before. It appeared on an electronic rolling sign and, just in case you missed it, it was announced after every station.  This is what it said (I joke not): "Please familiarise yourself with the safety notices in this train".  The British are in such constant danger it seems, or perhaps they are simply so down right badly behaved, that their lives need to be not only circumscribed by warnings and safety signs, but they even need signs ordering them to read the signs.  That sign reminded me of one of the thousands that I read while driving from Sussex to London last June.  It said, and again I joke not: "Warning: some signs have been removed".  Shudder... "Should we turn back?" "Will we survive without signs?" We bravely ploughed on along the M25 and, it is hard to believe, but we managed to find London.

As my train was pulling into Birmingham New Street I was relieved to see the sign: "For your own comfort and safety this carriage is being monitered by CCTV".  Well, it would be, wouldn't it.  After all, this is the country whose citizens are the most filmed in Europe, and it's not because they are on The X Factor.

Just before I got off the train I was reminded to "Please take all of your personal belongings with you" and, finally, the reassuring "Please mind the gap".


  1. Sign of the times!

    This made me chuckle to myself. Its so, so true. But unfortunately, many people in the U.K have lost respect for others and show lack of consideration towards others. Its partly the reason some of these signs exist. I don't agree with them all, but unfortunately they are there to serve a purpose. After a while though, people do switch off to the signs aroudn them.

  2. Thanks Mangocheeks. I know what you mean about lack of consideration. But I don't know if you can force niceness upon people by plastering surfaces with signs, and one can easily spill over the line into paternalism. A government that is paternal will end up with a populace that is child-like, and possibly resentful.