Saturday, February 3, 2018

Highley, Shropshire

The signs of yesteryear

In the words of Chard Whitlow, Henry Reed’s amusing parody of T. S. Eliot, ‘As we get older we do not get any younger’. As I get older, I can’t say I experience outright rudeness that often, although the world is not short of oafish behaviour, as a swift walk through any provincial town on a Friday night will reveal. I wonder, though, whether in days gone by it wasn’t worse. One certainly might think so, looking at old notices aimed at improving people’s behaviour. You didn’t have to go far before encountering a ‘COMMIT NO NUISANCE’ (low down, where an inconvenienced ‘gentleman’ might ‘aim’), an ‘ANYONE SMOKING WILL BE PROSECUTED’ (more likely at eye level), a ‘PLEASE REFRAIN FROM SPITTING’ (on buses), a ‘GENTLEMEN RAISE THE SEAT’¶ (on trains), or even an ‘ANY PERSON WILFULLY INJURING ANY PART OF THIS BRIDGE WILL BE GUILTY OF FELONY AND UPON CONVICTION LIABLE TO BE TRANSPORTED FOR LIFE’ (on bridges, in Dorset).

Oh, the signs of yesteryear. So people really had to be told not to spit on the bus or piddle in the corner? I suppose they did, oafs being as thick on the ground then as now, and hygiene being as important then as ever. So the Victorians and Edwardians got on and told them, in bold painted notices and cast-iron signs. Maybe some people even took notice of the notices. But above all, I suppose, it’s the language that marks them out, with its bracing mixture of euphemism (‘nuisance’) and dire warning (‘transported for life’).

A sign of the euphemistic sort that I’d never seen was ‘PLEASE ADJUST YOUR DRESS BEFORE LEAVING’. How can I have missed that one? Too busy admiring the plumbing in the Gents? I don’t know. I became aware of the existence of such signs years ago, reading an excellent book, The Faber Book of Parodies.* This contains not only the poem quoted at the beginning of this post, but a further go at T. S. Eliot, a sort of synoptic parody, called Sweeney in Articulo, attributed to Myra Buttle.† One section of this mock-epic concludes with a random-seeming bunch of quotations, in allusion to the allusive way in which Eliot’s The Waste Land ends. There’s one from Baudelaire, a bit of Latin, some Chinese characters, and then, mixing the highfalutin with the lowly:

‘Love thy neighbour as thyself,’
‘Couldn’t you bring better weather with you?’ and,
Above all,
‘Please adjust your dress before leaving.’

Like anything about T S Eliot, the poem has to have footnotes, and the final line is glossed, ‘Reproduced by permission of Westminster City Council’.

I was thrilled, therefore, some forty years on from reading the parody, to visit the railway station at Highley on the Severn Valley Railway§ and find, not only a ‘Paisley’ water cistern by Doulton and Co, looking like a large butler’s sink painted black, held above my head on two very sturdy iron brackets, but also this notice, a cast-iron plate with letters picked out in white on a black background. Thank you to the Severn Valley Railway for paying attention to the small things. As one must do when adjusting one’s dress before leaving…

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¶ Jonathan Miller, in Beyond the Fringe, offered the suggestion that this might be a loyal toast.

* Dwight MacDonald (ed), The Faber Book of Parodies (Faber and Faber, 1961)

† After wondering for a minute whether ‘Myra Buttle’ might be a pseudonym of one of my Oxford tutors, Marilyn Butler, I read that Myra Buttle was a Cambridge don, a Sinologist called Victor Purcell. Anyone who likes parodies might also want to search out Myra Buttle, The Sweeniad (Secker & Warburg, 1958), which contains the Sweeney epic. 

§ Like many preserved railway lines, the Severn Valley is a good hunting-ground for sign-fanciers: it has an abundance of old enamel advertising signs.


Matthew said...

Yet another fascinating post, and thank you for alerting me to Chard Whitlow!

(My first comment since 2012 and your post on 'Greece in the Midlands' but a regular reader.)

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Matthew. Good to know you're still reading my posts.

Joe Treasure said...

Brilliant post (which I've been slow to get to). I like the process of inferring bad behaviour from notices discouraging it.