Column July 7, 2010: Do Not Throw Stones At This Notice

CAUGHT short while out, I took advantage of the available facilities. And I was feeling pretty lucky as I washed my hands, as, for once, I’d chosen the sink which had the soap dispenser with some soap in it.

Then I looked up and saw a little notice: “Now wash your hands.”

Now, I generally approve of the nanny state. The nanny state is what cut motoring fatalities by insisting that people wear seatbelts and not have 14 pints of absinthe before going for a spin. The nanny state is what introduced health and safety legislation, slashing industrial deaths.

And I find that the sort of person who hates the nanny state is usually the sort of person who actually had a nanny, the sort of person who preaches self-reliance while sitting on a massive pile of inherited money.

But that little notice? “Now wash your hands?” What is the purpose of that? There are two types of men in the world: those who wash their hands after using the lavatory without being told, and revolting savages who deserve to be shamed in public but for the fact that they have no shame.

And that second type is not likely to pay any attention to the sign because they are not standing by the sinks . . . BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT WASHING THEIR HANDS.

There isn’t a third type, the sort of man who does his business and then walks over to the sink and thinks: “Now, what’s this porcelain thing for? Ooh, look, running water. I wish I could come up with some sort of application for this whole piece of apparatus. Wait a minute! What does that notice say?”

I pondered the uselessness of many signs while perusing the city council’s plans for Old Hall Street. These plans, admirable in their entirety, state: “All unnecessary signs and street furniture such as bins or poles will be removed.”

I took a lunchtime walk along the street to see what these unnecessary signs were. I must admit, it was difficult to find them. I saw “No entry” signs, “one-way” signs, “No parking” signs, parking meter signs, railway station signs, but no unnecessary signs. All of them had an important use.

Then, as I rested by an unnecessary bin – it was full, but, of course, the rubbish could just as easily and efficiently be distributed across the whole of Old Hall Street – I looked up. And found one. And once I’d found one I saw another, and another.

In fact, there were loads of signs indicating that I was in “The Commercial District,” a conclusion I would probably have reached all by myself, merely by noting I was surrounded by offices, men wearing suits and women carrying gigantic cardboard cups of coffee and copies of Heat.

And all of these signs had been placed there by the city council, the same city council now declaring war on unnecessary signs. This war on unnecessary signs is the equivalent of somebody barging into your living room, emptying a wheelbarrow of compost onto your nice carpet, then cleaning it up and expecting a round of applause and a cup of tea.

In fact, if our Coalition Masters wanted to save some money – and the evidence that they do is pretty overwhelming – they could make a good start by abolishing all Unnecessary Signs departments.

This would mean an end to signs like the one I saw last week at the Hall Lane construction site, as my bus took 10 minutes to go 100 yards – “SLOW ROADWORKS.”

If David Cameron was willing to start his rolling back of the nanny state with this common-sense move, I would be first in line to shake his hand. That is, as long as I can be sure he’d washed it.

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