Miles Kington: Aping signals can prove lucrative in art

Road users spontaneously adopt hand signals, though many of them are obscene
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The Independent Online

Yesterday, I brought you part of a current trial in which a man is accused of dangerous driving simply because he gave a hand signal to indicate that he was turning right. The driver behind him thought he was waving her on, and overtook him as he turned right, with predictable consequences. The case depends on whether hand signals still have validity, which really only an expert can decide. Luckily, that is exactly what happened next...

Counsel: At this point, I would like to call an expert in human communication.

Judge: Ah, Mr Alain de Botton, perhaps? Or A C Grayling?

Counsel: I am afraid not, m'lud. We could not afford to call either of them.

Judge: A pity. I enjoy their writing. Mark you, I can never understand what they are on about. But that is the mark of the true philosopher, is it not?

Counsel: No doubt, my lord.

Judge: So, who have you got?

Counsel: Professor Zeb Cartwright, m'lud.

Judge: Never heard of him.

Counsel: He comes from the Desmond Morris school of thought, m'lud.

Judge: What do they believe in?

Counsel: Writing best-sellers. Making popular television programmes. Teaching chimps to paint. That sort of thing.

Judge: Bring him on!

The witness is sworn in

Counsel: Now, you are Professor Zeb Cartwright?

Cartwright: I am.

Counsel: And you are an expert in body language?

Cartwright: I have studied gestures worldwide, yes.

Counsel: Do you consider that it is outmoded for motorists to use hand signals?

Cartwright: Certainly not. It is the most natural thing in the world to give hand signals. What is unnatural is to press a little knob and turn a light on at the back of the car.

Counsel: But the art of signalling is a modern invention! It could not have predated the car!

Cartwright: Rubbish. Hand signals were being used by coach-drivers long before, and by horse riders long before that. Even now, you will see road-users spontaneously use freshly adopted hand signals, though many of them are, admittedly, obscene.

Counsel: But hand signals have surely become outmoded, just as 78rpm records and manual typewriters have become outmoded.

Cartwright: Not so. The modern Highway Code permits hand signals, making them obligatory for horse-riders and bicyclists. These two have an advantage, of course, as they can stick out their left hand to indicate a left turn, which motorists cannot do.

Counsel: Which is why in the old days motorists had to do that circling thing with their hand to indicate a left turn?

Cartwright: Precisely. That, of course, was different from most signals in being an artificial and taught signal. Not unlike a chimpanzee being taught how to paint.

Counsel: Pardon?

Cartwright: A chimpanzee will never paint unless instructed to do so. It is inflicted on him. But once taught, he may enjoy it.

Counsel: Does the Desmond Morris school of thought consider £12,000 is a reasonable price for a chimpanzee painting?

Cartwright: You are behind the times, sir. There is a chimpanzee in California which has already moved into art dealing.

Counsel: I'm sorry?

Cartwright: Bongo has made a fortune from appearing in TV commercials. Recently, he spotted a painting in a nearby art gallery and became very attached to it. It was bought for him out of his earnings. He has now accumulated a small collection of paintings which are accruing in value, suggesting he has purchased wisely.

Counsel: Extraordinary. What kind of art does he favour ?

Cartwright: Highly coloured abstract art. He was once taken to a Tracey Emin exhibition, but showed symptoms of distress and had to be removed.

Judge: Gentlemen, I cannot believe my ears. This is meant to be a case of dangerous driving. How you got into a discussion of monkey behaviour, I do not know.

Counsel: I am sorry, m'lud.

Judge: No need. It is much more interesting this way. Carry on!

The case continues, though not in this space