Forget brickbats for greengrocers' apostrophes – let's instead concentrate on those who take signwriting up to a new level, says our columnist Jason Goodwin.
Potato’s. 50p. ‘Broccoli’. Pizza’s. Randomly scattered around market stalls from one end of the country to the other, those apostrophes and quotation marks drive some people wild with rage.
I don’t mind them – they’re put there in honest ignorance, not malice. Half an hour with Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style would have every costermonger in the land confidently and correctly offering Laxton’s Superb or Bananas: 50p. What I dislike is ‘Quote me happy’.
Now, that is malevolent. Find my happy. A cup of merry. The perversity of the copywriters drives me wild with rage or, at least, disgust, but there comes a time in a man’s life when he has to stop complaining about every little thing – smartphones at the table, horrible advertising, virtue signalling, cheeky-chappie labelling on food cartons – and learn to look for the good around him.
So, I really like, for instance, northern lorries with their name and place of origin hand-painted on the cab door, like bargees. The other day, I met a pair of men repainting the fingerpost at the top of the hill and we passed an interesting few minutes sharing our appreciation of the posts, the names and the lettering.
“I was annoyed when railway companies started referring to us as customers instead of passengers, but I revel in their use of the word ‘alight’, because it’s fundamentally poetic”
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They told me that those red signposts with white lettering that occasionally occur in Dorset don’t signal an old gibbet set up at a crossroads, as I thought, but muster points for transportations to Australia, this being the county of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. I’m not sure I entirely believe that either.
I was annoyed when railway companies started referring to us as customers instead of passengers, but I revel in their use of the word ‘alight’, because it’s fundamentally poetic. Like the language of the King James Bible, it’s sacramental.
I like the plaque in cabs that advises passengers to ‘Please sit well back for safety and comfort’, not least because it was the first thing I ever read aloud, to my parents’ surprise, as they were convinced I was illiterate, in spite of my evidently privileged background.
Inside was a deliciously surreal announcement: a small, square, yellow sticker on the back page printed with the terse legend ‘remove this sticker’ – so I did.
I had to tear up to London the other day to get a new passport when the Turks refused to let me enter the country with less than six months’ validity left on the old one. The kind ladies at the local post office oversaw my application and it was issued in under four hours, allowing me to buy my visa online as the Tube to Heathrow passed Barons Court. Inside was a deliciously surreal announcement: a small, square, yellow sticker on the back page printed with the terse legend ‘remove this sticker’ – so I did.
Road trips through France are enlivened by country level crossings carrying a sign that, in an apotheosis of French philosophical genius, warns you that ‘Un train peut cacher un autre’. It is an observation containing a volume of experience and has a stylish, aphoristic flavour, the sort of thing Chauvelin might say to the Scarlet Pimpernel.
The announcements that I admire the most, however, are inscribed on road signs closer to home. One, in a low-lying valley, warns the motorist: ‘Area prone to fog.’ The other, on a ridge, reads: ‘Road liable to flood.’ Strunk & White could possibly explain the Rizla-thin difference between ‘liable’ and ‘prone’, but if you try swapping them round, you’ll see what I mean.
Congratulations to the person in the Department for Transport who has not only nailed the grammar perfectly, but also given their signs a little whiff of poetry.
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