Matthew Parris has the knack of writing passionately on subjects where few would disagree with his view but no-one will do anything about it. He does the big controversial things too, but his forte is the unregarded topics which adversely our affect our lives and our environment, either without our noticing them or which we notice with resigned certainty that nothing will be done.
His Times article on Saturday was headed “No smoking. No this. No that. And no more signs, please”. His starting point is that the smoking ban requires notices to be stuck up in every enclosed public place, including cathedrals. There are many things you are not allowed to do in cathedrals – arson, murder and sex amongst them – but there is no requirement nor practice that notices be stuck up to warn the public of this. Why should a blanket ban on smoking – which all are presumed to know about and which has never been common practice in cathedrals anyway – require anything more than murder by way of notices?
There are many things we may not do, Parris says, which are not advertised. Ignorance of the law is no excuse and we do not need notices everywhere to tell us so. Similarly, we do not need notices everywhere to remind us of the ordinary risks of going about our business.
“.. with each passing year the bombardment of eyes and ears with admonitions, restrictions and prohibitions grows more intense. The spread of signage has become a serious modern evil: a kind of environmental pollution. “No smoking” signs are almost ubiquitous. Pavements sprout a forest of poles bearing tin plates on which parking restrictions, speed restrictions, access restrictions and warnings about road humps, bus and cycle lanes, uneven surfaces and hazards of every kind, shout their advice. Looped tapes on public address systems endlessly repeat banal exhortations to mind this, take care of that, avoid one thing or remember another”.
There is, Parris says a law of diminishing returns here. The more notices there are, the less notice we take of them, even if we can distinguish them from each other and take them all in. Ubiquity breeds not just oversight, but contempt.
The answer, he says, is for “government to take a planned, across-the-board decision to repulse the advance of signage”. We must rely on the presumption (which exists anyway) that we know the law and reserve notices for the deviations from the norm.
We will not, of course get any such thing. What is the root cause of all these bloody signs anyway?