Signs save labour – leaving more time for idling, writes Tom Hodgkinson
It was around midnight when I returned from a hard weekend teaching philosophy and selling books at the excellent Camp Good Life at the Gladstone estate in North Wales, of which more in a moment.
The kitchen was spotlessly clean and there was a folded piece of red cardboard on the side, bearing the following legend written in thick black marker pen:
“Don’t leave Any Washing or Drying up for me to do.”
I assumed that the note, in my partner Victoria’s handwriting, was aimed at me, and I felt an immediate thrill of fear. Do I normally leave washing and drying up for her to do? I’d always considered myself to be fairly diligent in that respect.
I drank a bottle of beer as a reward to myself for the four hour drive down the M6 and M40 I’d just made, in a Transit van full of books, and then carefully cleaned, dried and put away my glass mug and put the beer bottle in the recycling.
I then glanced around the kitchen before going to bed, to double check that there was no washing or drying up for Victoria to do.
The next morning Victoria told me that the sign was not actually aimed at me, but at our two young sons, aged 16 and 21, who, despite years of us screaming and shouting at them, still seem unable to clear away their cereal bowls, cups, cutlery, pans and other detritus in the morning (or in the afternoon as the older one has been appearing at 3pm most days).
The sign had been up all weekend and had proved remarkably effective, Victoria said. It has since stayed in the kitchen all week and I’ve noticed a marked improvement in the standard and frequency of washing and drying up, and a more pleasant kitchen has resulted.
I wish we’d stumbled upon this brilliant stratagem before. And the success of the sign made me reflect on the power of signs in general. You just do obey them, don’t you? It’s why households in the olden days printed out the “house rules” and displayed them in shared areas. It’s why the roads are covered in signs that tell you what speed to drive at. It’s why public loos add a sign saying, “Now wash your hands” (by the way, don’t you love that New Yorker cartoon showing two cats in a public loo with a sign in front of them saying, “Now lick your butt”).
We could list a million other examples. Signs are a brilliant way of cutting down work. Instead of Victoria or me standing in the kitchen all day, shouting at the boys, we simply install a sign.
It was probably our lack of good signage in the bookshop Victoria and I ran from 2011 to 2016 that caused people to say, “Are these books for sale?” when they wandered in. Not enough signs.
There were signs aplenty at Camp Good Life this weekend, all jauntily designed, and all conceived with the intention of making life easy for both punters and staff – directions to the loos and bars and various instructions on etiquette as well. There was also a delightful ever-changing “Hollywood” style sign. At various times over the weekend, it was changed to read WELCOME, HUNG OVER, NICE or SEE YOU SOON.
Save labour. Make a sign.
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We once resorted to carrying cereal bowls from various surfaces and putting them in our teenage sons’ beds. We then told them this is where they’d all be re-filed if left lying around. It was a surreal and desperate demonstration of our exasperation. It failed to have the desired effect, as had schemes 1-17 leading up to that.
A sign is a better tactic, we’ll give it a go.
That caused a chortle and put a smile on my face.