radio review

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The Independent Culture
I've been puzzled for years by Polite Notices - the ones that say "Polite Notice: Keep Out", or "Polite Notice: No Parking". Do the people who think up the wording believe a claim to politeness has the same effect as being genuinely polite ("No Parking Please" would be nice). Do they imagine there's nothing rude about a sign that says "Polite Notice: Go and Sit on a Spiked Stick, Dogbreath"? Somebody once told me that the real reason for including that line is that you're supposed to think it says "Police Notice", and be scared off by the threat of official sanction. You can see the argument, but how come I never made the mistake (and my eyesight is terrible)?

What brings all this to mind is listening to Speak After the Beep, a series of readings by Martin Jarvis - though "readings" is too pale a word for his bristlingly intelligent performance - of monologues by Michael Frayn on modern communications, in Radio 4's Yesterday in Parliament slot. The opening episode, yesterday morning, began with an assault on the manners of the answering-machine: Frayn contrasted the flexibility and expressiveness of ordinary human speech - by the simple word "hello" I announce my presence, give you a sample of my voice for identification, express courtesy, patience, impatience, optimism, pessimism, whatever - with the pomposity and rigidity we adopt on the answer-phone (our vocabulary becomes official, we retreat into the third person - "If you wish to leave a message for Warrington or Leticula Shrub..."). After this, there was a mock aeroplane safety demonstration, sniping at the reticence of the cabin-staff, the studious unconsciousness of the passengers.

In both of these, you felt, Frayn had hit some sort of mark; you just wonder if it was one that ought to be hit. What he missed, and what the "Police Notice" theorists miss, is the importance that we attach to redundant words. Nobody really pays attention to the cabin-crew's little dance, but it's an important ritual of reassurance - it lets you know that your safety has been considered. We know it's Warrington Shrub on the answer- phone, but by discussing himself in the third person he's reassuring you that he really isn't there, or he'd be pleased to have a jolly chat. And we know that it isn't really a polite notice; the owner is just reassuring us that he doesn't actually want to start a fight. If anything, the world needs more meaningless and pompous persiflage. Apart from anything else, it keeps critics in a job.

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