Tuesday, September 19, 2006


It wasn’t until I visited Norway last year that I began to notice the English fetish for directional signs. Oslo, in comparison to even a quiet smokey English hamlet, is minimally sign posted. Presumable in a country the physical size of Norway, with a combined population hard pushed to exceed a modest sized metropolitan city in England, getting lost there would theoretically be much easier. Just walk out into any Norwegian Wood and be discovered decades later frozen to a pine tree. Little realising you were a mere hundred miles from a local supermarket or Viking Theme Park.

In this information age of Google and Sat Nav , it’s hardly beyond the ken of most English people to know where they are going and how to get there. Yet still we hear complaints about the wrong sort of signs, not enough signs, or worse still signs in the wrong places. I rarely hear anyone saying there are far too many signs. Just take a look at the way they clutter up our street corners.

In Cambridge, because it is a heritage site, heavily traffic congested and a cyclists paradise, we are festooned with the dratted things. Covered with Blue Signs, Green Signs, Brown Signs, White Signs, Black with Gold Letter Signs. Speed Signs, Warning Signs, Informing Signs, Advertising Signs, Place Signs, Floodlit Signs, Flashing Signs, etc etc. Centuries ago a lonely wayfarer toddling along a cobbled road to Cambridge would look out for a milestone. Usually they simply told you how far you were from London and how far away the nearest town was. These days signposts are getting to resemble models of a double helix, which for Cambridge would be very apt.

So what is going on here? Our every directional need is met. It’s very hard to get lost for very long in England. Within minutes you’re bound to find a sign for a B&B, its name and proximity. They do all but tell you the tariff, how long they’ve been in business and whether they’re gay friendly. Perhaps its because English people are hopelessly parochial. They travel in confidence around their own homes and gardens. They haven’t a clue about anything beyond their immediate road, let alone village, town or country. There is no point in asking for directions, you have to rely on signs.

Signs do ,however, have a habit of running out, just when you most need them. I was once in Thetford looking for the site of the priory ruins. There was a sign in the town centre which I followed to where there was another sign. Then came a fork in the road where there was no sign. Suddenly I was thrown upon trusting my instincts. In this instance they were entirely wrong. I wandered around cyclically for sometime, getting tantalising glimpses of my quarry through bushes, but never getting close to it. When I finally found the entrance it was obvious why the sign makers had given up. It was getting far too complicated, involving subways under roads. More signs would have just confused things even more.

David has reminded me of a classic example of pointless signs. The ones that say ‘To the North’, I guess that’s so Southerners are forewarned. Quite when the South becomes the Midlands, or the Midlands the North is a debatable question. What is it we are North of? Civilisation? The English Channel? The Queen?

As a country we take pride in our nonconformity, which appears to be in direct contradiction to our actual behaviour. We complain about red tape and unnecessary restrictions on our liberty and rebel in pitifully minor ways. We never want to take off and get lost in a wilderness ourselves. We sit in our homely armchairs, wearing our carpet slippers and watch vicariously someone else’s adventure on cable TV.

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