Signs and sensibility

2011-05-26 00:00

I HAVE always thought that signs get a bad deal. Compared to media­ such as newspapers, magazines­, radio and television, signs really don’t have much scope for humour. We don’t expect them to — it’s not in their job description. Signs are meant to serve as purveyors of information and regulators of behaviour. Just think of all the road signs you pass on the way to work, the myriad road names, signs with arrows specifying the direction and distance to landmarks such as hospitals, schools and shopping centres. And, of course, signs telling you where to stop or yield and how fast you should be driving.

While I wouldn’t quite call it my inner Che Guevara, I find it refreshing, and something to celebrate, when I see signs that transcend their narrow brief. I know psychologists warn against the dangers of anthromorphosising things, but I feel happy for them.

While on holiday on the north coast with my family recently, I came across two such signs. The first is seen as you approach Chaka’s Rock beach. An array of graphics depicts a considerable number of prohibited activities, in response to which someone has scribbled: “Wat can u do!!”

Now, I don’t generally appreciate graffiti (or bad spelling), and part of me wished that someone had replied with a rejoinder like “learn how to spell!” But the sign is positioned some way from the beach itself, and I found myself agreeing that it does promote an unnecessarily oppressive atmosphere. The response of Thomas and Francis, my two teenage sons, had none of the ambiguity and tentativeness of my own. The sign “had it coming”, they declared enthusiastically.

The second sign is positioned fairly unobtrusively against a wall next to the tidal pool at Thompson’s Bay. It is clearly intended to inform users how to use the pool safely and to protect the associated sea life. Fair enough. No need for graffiti or exasperation here.

But the last point: “Do not release sharks into tidal pool”, following on from the measured, common-sense tone of its predecessors, absolutely slayed me. It conjured up an absurd, comical but also quite frightening, mini Jaws scenario in my imagination. An idyllic summer’s day at the seaside suddenly transformed into screaming children and pandemonium as Jaws Junior’s diminutive, but unmistakable dorsal fin, is spotted slicing through the surface of the tidal pool.

Given the absurdity of the instruction, and the fact that it appears last on the list, I suspected that it was a reaction to one or more actual incidents rather than merely anticipatory. And I was right. One of the local residents told me that she knew of at least one occasion when an angler had released a small shark he had caught, into the paddling pool.

A third sign (in fact it appeared on an electronic notice board) that I really enjoyed recently was a local one posted on the electronic notice board of All Saints Church in Chase Valley before a Super 15 rugby game between the Sharks and the Stormers. Now I know that for a stroky-beard-type, media-studies student, a notice like this could provide wonderful evidence of the unhealthy relationship between sport and religion in South Africa. But for me it was welcome relief while driving to the Cascades Shopping Centre, and a gentle reminder from above that I needed to get on and finish an article that I had been dawdling over — an article about two signs I had seen on the north coast. It went something as follows: “God doesn’t have favourites ... but the sign master does ... Go Sharks.”

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