Signs of the times

by Mary Jackson (April 2007) 

 Here is a strange sign near my home:


The barrier, under which we must not walk, is a mere three feet high. And as you can see, to the left of it there is a gap. So why would you walk under it? More to the point, would that silly yellow banner deter a dwarf or limbo dancer bent on defiance?


I dislike these bossy signs, telling you not to do something you had no intention of doing. They bring out the bloody-minded in me. These days you see illuminated signs on motorways: “Keep your distance! Tiredness kills – take a break!” If I can find one, I will put an illuminated sign on my car roof: “Bugger off! Mind your own business!”


I don’t dislike road signs in general. They are clear and well designed. Moreover, there is a directness to these wordless admonitions sadly lacking in much contemporary language. Look at this one, meaning “elderly people crossing ahead”:



No “senior citizens”, no “eighty is the new forty”, just honest-to-goodness doddery. This one, meaning quayside or riverbank, is good too:



No euphemisms here: watch out or you’ll end up in a watery grave.











These signs, warning of “wild animals” and “wild horses” were designed by somebody who knew, and perhaps loved, his subject matter. Look at the stag’s antlers – that is far more detail than is needed for utilitarian purposes.


The producer of the sign below, glimpsed on a road in Norfolk, was less of an animal-lover:



Meeeouch! “Cats’ eyes” refers to the small reflectors embedded in the middle of major roads, temporarily removed on this occasion. At least I hope so.


It is impossible to provide a clear picture for every possible danger that we may encounter on the road, so the generic “other danger” sign was developed. This has an exclamation mark, and a plate underneath indicating the nature of the danger, thus:




Many years ago somebody sent a photograph of one such sign to The Times. The exclamation mark was there in all its glory, telling the driver to be on his guard, but the plate merely said “Hazard ahead”, without being more specific. The hazard could have been anything from falling rocks or wild horses to a mere “adverse camber”, and the poor driver would have no idea when to panic, how much and at what.


My favourite warning sign is this:



It means “slippery road”, although in some survey or other a fair number of people thought it meant “beware drunk drivers”. The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road sign. The main reason I like it is that it is impossible: the tyre tracks can never cross like that, but you can while away the hours trying to imagine that somehow they might. 


Direction signs can speak volumes about the attitude of their creator. Here is one such:




As an ex-Lancastrian in The Smoke, I enjoyed the implication that, outside the rarefied, bookish atmosphere of old-moneyed Highgate Village, there lurks an undifferentiated mass of Northerners with barbaric flat vowels, whippets and outside toilets. 

Here’s Jeanette Winterson, whose journalism I prefer to her books, on the subject of road signs: 

This roadway version of the famous British reserve prompted me to collect some of the idiosyncrasies of travelling life. Although we are fined for eating apples or making telephone calls at the wheel, we are expected to read a huge amount of information while we drive. These warnings and instructions are often so entertaining that I would be safer using my mobile phone with both hands than enjoying myself with their multiple readings.

What should we make of “Changed Priorities Ahead”? It is now impossible to drive through any city centre without reflecting on one’s life choices. Should you give up the car? Move house? Or is it the world that has changed while you were in Marks & Spencer?

For motorists on the M4 around Reading, a marvellous opportunity presents itself to find an answer to all questions about changed priorities: “For Oracle Leave at Junction 11”.

For those of us not quite ready for a real-life version of Discworld, new exhortations from the Ministry of Transport may be sufficient. People sometimes complain that we are a superficial and passive society who prefer The X-Factorand Big Brotherto art and culture. Perhaps I have thought so myself, but no more. As I zoomed along the M40 into London, there it was, over the lanes: “Think Don’t Phone While Driving.”

Straight away I switched off Radio 2 and turned to the big questions. “Why am I here?” I thought, and although there was no clear answer, especially driving through Ruislip, I was grateful to the road czars for prompting me back to higher things.

I am sure that most wet-weather drivers will have seen the “Spray Slow Down” signs digitally illuminated on the motorway. The fun starts when the lights fail. “Pray Slow Down” is wonderfully polite, and I am so charmed that I hardly manage more than 25mph in honour of the phrasing. The best one yet, however, is “Pray Low Down”, which must be for our Muslim friends, but adds some spiritual uplift to a tedious journey.

One recent journey through the 27 mini-roundabouts barring the way to Cambridge via Milton Keynes set me thinking about our literary heritage, and how different it might have been if the crossroads had been replaced by the roundabout.

Oedipus would never have had that fight with his father about who was going to give way first – they could just have followed the arrows. And then he wouldn’t have married his mother, so all that fate and incest could have been avoided with a bit of highway management. But what of Tess of the D’Urber-villes or poor old Jude the Obscure or Tom Jones or Tam O’Shanter? The implications of crossroads are profound – less so the roundabout. Has anyone ever said: “I’ve come to a mini-roundabout in my life.”



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Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.