When I sat down to write this article it was going to be about blue plaques in Brighton, and especially those in ‘The Whistler’ cachement area but as I researched names and places I came across the story of a Brighton resident, Dave Askwith who, together with Alex Normanton, conceived the idea for the book, ‘Signs of Life’, published in 2005, while commuting from Brighton to London on the 7:34. “It was mundane – my fault for sitting in the same seat, (facing the bin and the emergency fire extinguisher), staring at the same signs every day,” said Askwith, who works, like Normanton, in advertising. “It’s not so much the sign but what it’s associated with; how signs mislead. ‘Quick ticket machines’ are anything but; they’re not quick, they’re a nightmare. Then you see the signs saying ‘good service’ beside Underground lines and everyone knows that it’s woeful at best. Trains that are ‘fast to Brighton’ are nothing of the sort. Signs are funny because they say one thing when we, reading them, know the reality is totally different.”
Askwith started putting signs up – the first aimed to shed light on a mysterious lever on a slam-door train. Others were overtly political, such as the “Polling Station” poster on a bin, which was intended to express Askwith’s anger at the political system.
Normanton, a graphic designer, found the correct fonts and mounted the signs on card and paper. Askwith then photographed them in their natural geographical habitat. He likened it to the guerrilla, subversive interventions of the graffiti artist Banksy. Most signs and notices, the duo believe, offer useless information, state the obvious or don’t make sense.
Visitors to the Tower of London may have come across a sign pointing towards the London landmark. The font is so perfect, the brown colour so familiar-looking, that it really could be an official sign marking a heritage landmark. Instead, it reads “Disappointing Ruins”.
Similarly beguiling, the shape and font of the surreal train sign “Press button to release truffle pigs” looks just like the ones that warn you not to pull the emergency lever. And there was the inspired joke of an English Heritage blue plaque “Jacob von Hogflume, 1864-1909, inventor of time travel, lived here in 2063”. Their original sign was removed from Golden Square in London, then returned but actually may be a fake of a fake! The original Askwith & Normanton fake gave the date of Jacob Von Hogflume’s residence as 2063, whilst the current sign has moved that date forward by more than a century.
‘Please give up your seat if Frank wants it’; ‘To summon the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, please pull the string provided’. From shops to roadsides and offices to hotels, Dave Askwith’s witty and cutting ‘art’ was his futile but highly amusing gesture of dissatisfaction with the most woeful public transport system in the world and the inane protocols and rules of modern life.