This group of notices was photographed on Saturday 3 February on the railings of the lavatories at the south end of St Giles in Oxford. I glimpsed the white one a few days ago and went back to photograph it – it illustrates my general theme that the sort of people who run local government, here at least, are not fit custodians of beautiful places and things.
The return visit was a gold-mine for one interested in the crass stupidity of petty authority. In one little group we have unnecessarily obtrusive signage, disregard of context, semi-literacy and – the crowning glory – a redirection sign which is 100% incorrect.
This is perhaps the very centre of Oxford from the perspective of a visitor. To the left of the camera is the Martyrs’ Memorial with the Randolph Hotel beside it. Opposite are the Taylorian Institute and the Ashmolean Museum. To our right stretches St Giles, one of the finest urban vistas in Europe. Behind us are Balliol and St John’s Colleges. You would pause a moment before fouling up a streetscape like that, would you not? Apparently not.
The Blue Sign
No-one argues with the need for a tastefully coloured sign indicating what lies down the stairs. Even I do not expect apostrophes in “Gents” and “Ladies” nor the one which strictly belongs in “St Giles’ “. If the point of the mannequin figures is to inform a foreigner, it seems a trifle unhelpful to display the female symbol next to an essay as to where “ladies toilets can be found”. An arrow would have been more helpful. These are minor points. This notice is useful, and no more conspicuous than is needed for its purpose.
The White Sign
This is unnecessary and offensive both to visitors and the surroundings, as well as being illiterate both visually and in its wording. The proud logos show that Oxford City Council and Thames Valley Police share responsibility for the notice.
Let us start with the “family” group in the red triangle. The red triangle is the international road symbol indicating danger. I cannot find that there is a standard sign showing two men each holding the hand of a child. What does it mean here? Which of the offences listed beside it does it relate to? The nearest I can get to deciphering a meaning is that it gives a specific warning of paedophile activity in the area. Is that really a risk here? If so, we need more than a red triangle. If not, what does it mean? The red triangle convention is that any accompanying text explains the sign, so I see a warning that council and police staff regularly visit for paedophile activity.
Moving on to the main text (and ignoring the screaming capitals so beloved of officious plonkers in council offices), we have a heading “All behaviour relating” followed by a list. “Behaviour relating to drinking” and “behaviour relating to drugs” is just about comprehensible. But “All behaviour relating … of a sexual nature” is just nonsense.
Moving on, we are told that “behaviour relating .. of illegal activity is prohibited (or rather “Is Prohibited”). Ploddy, you cannot be serious – illegal activity is prohibited! I would never have guessed. Thanks for the warning.
You can get “help and assistance” by calling a number – help AND assistance, all from the same number! That is good – there nothing worse than finding that you have ring one number for help and a different one for assistance. So if you see a child being dragged down the stairs by a man from the council or police, all you have to do is remember the 11 digit number of the police non-emergency number. They will get back to you in a matter of weeks with the number of the support line for victims of crime.
It is just words isn’t it – some copper has been promoted off the pavements and into the arcane realm of words, and has sat down with a council pen-pusher to string together some random letters to give a serious warning (that is, a Serious Warning) to … to whom exactly?
The target audience is presumably people planning to engage in the prohibited activities. Let us assume that such a notice is necessary in principle. It (or rather a clear and literate version of it) could serve that purpose just as well by being posted down the stairs out of sight of those who have come to admire the city. Is some villain going to complain because he went to all the trouble of going down stairs before learning that his plan to sip a sherry, inject a drug or bugger his new best friend is not permitted?
The problem here is not really (or not exclusively) stupidity. There is something about the mindset of the sort of people who work for officialdom which blinds them to what the rest of us can see clearly. It is part of a wider conflict between “utility” and the visual elements which contribute to quality of life. You and I see a beautiful setting, every stone a source of pleasure individually and as part of the whole. A council officer sees just some buildings and tarmac. There is a conduct problem in part of the scene – so you stick up a great notice, concerned only with its utility and oblivious to its impact on the scene, and without any thought as to what is actually needed to get the message across.
I anticipate that the originators of this notice will be genuinely bewildered that anyone might be offended by it. That they will not understand the critique of its content is a product of small minds being given a task which is beyond them. Their inability to understand that the notice is wholly inappropriate in this setting is symptomatic of something much deeper – the absence of a cultural hinterland which might inform their actions.
The Yellow Notice
I have left the best till last. The yellow notice says that the lavatories are closed for “essential maintenance” – it is good to know that it is not trivial or unnecessary maintenance. An arrow indicates “alternative toilets” in Market Street. It points north. The nearest Market Street in that direction is in Woodstock, more than 10 miles away.
Market Street in Oxford is a few hundred yards in the opposite direction. The proponents of “utility” cannot even get basic directions right.