Even though the Frenchman in me would be the first to admit that, unlike you follow-the-rule English, some of his concitoyens may be accused of lacking in citizenship, he can’t help thinking that mitigating circumstances can be found in the fact that the freedom granted to you to do what you want in publicly-frequented places is far more restricted than in France. For not only are you at constant risk of being brought to order by authority or, incredibly, by your fellow citizens, but I don’t know of any other nation which displays such a generalized obsession for regulating public behaviour in the minutest detail. What other judgement can we have of a country where the ubiquitous presence of such a multiplicity of signs, notices, placards, boards, stickers, plates, pointers, arrows, warnings, instructions, recommendations, injunctions, enjoinders and sundry symbols makes it perfectly clear to all what they can and, above all, what they can’t do in public places, and leaves them in no doubt of the dire consequences that will befall them if they fail to comply? And this can be carried to the most ridiculous extremes. I mean, in some public places it’s even forbidden to kiss!
Imagine, par exemple, you’re a businessman and you decide to take a train to visit a customer in London. Your wife drives you to the station in the morning, and stops at the drop-off point in front. What’s more natural that, just before you get out of the car, your lips should come together in a parting kiss? But, incredible as this may sound, at one station in England at least you can’t do it. It’s officially forbidden! Presumably in an attempt to get us to swallow the idea that it increases traffic fluidity, the area has a prominent sign displaying a man and woman in the act of kissing – with a prohibitive line drawn though it! But don’t worry! Inside the station another sign indicates that kissing is now allowed. The only problem is that your wife’s now on her way back home and there’s nobody left to kiss! And nowhere is your English fixation with the punctilious regulation of public behaviour better illustrated than on that occasion last summer when I visited one of your stately homes.
This is not to say that things didn’t get off to a reasonably encouraging start. For on arriving my heart was warmed by the prominent notice Welcome to Grumblesby Hall attached to a pillar of the palatial lodge gates. I began, however, to have one or two doubts when a No Dogs Allowed suspended immediately beneath, made no bones of the fact that if anyone thought he could take Rover for a run (or more) in the grounds, he was barking up the wrong tree. But I was somewhat assured when, on driving through the gates, a Car Park – 200 Yards sign brought it to my attention that not much more than a stone’s throw ahead a place had been thoughtfully provided for the visitor to lodge his car; and the prominent arrow which followed removed any doubt anyone might have had as to the route to follow in order to reach it. A few meters farther, however, and a killjoy Maximum Speed 5 mph made it quite clear that any attempt on the part of the boy racers among us to cover the distance indicated at a speed not much exceeding the locomotive capacities of a snail would be deemed perilous enough to render them liable to a Fine Not Exceeding £100.
In an effort, no doubt, to deter the rambler type of visitor, eager to get off the beaten track, the next sign announced there was No Parking on Grass Verges. And just to make sure we all understood this was no idle warning a ghastly-sounding Wheel Clamping in Operation – Release fee £100 brought it intimidatingly home that not only would any offending vehicle be instantly clapped in irons, but an extortionist ransom would be demanded for it to be freed. As I inched forward, another No Parking on Grass Verges came into view – the At any Time beneath bringing it unequivocally home that military discipline was in operation here, and that in absolutely no circumstances would the slightest quarter be shown.
After crawling on for a hundred meters or so an Official Car Park notice informed me that the limits of authorized vehicular advancement had now been reached; and as I pulled into the enclosure an All Vehicles Must Be Parked Well Within Lines – Penalty £100 made it perfectly clear that those who didn’t comply with surgical precision would render themselves liable to a not inconsiderable fine. And just in case any idiot had got it into his silly head that parking was on the house a Pay And Display notice brought it to the attention of one and all that permission to deposit your vehicle inside the park required not only the payment of an appropriate fee but visible proof you had acquitted yourself of it.
(To be continued)