Confusing messages

People never believe me when I say this, but I did once see a sign outside a hotel near Oxford, which advertised itself as ‘Ye Olde Coaching Inn’. Stapled to the wall below this was a stern warning: NO COACHES. (In a similarly grim but cheering vein, the sign outside the last hospice my mother entered had a sign just by the door, referring to parking, which said ‘Short Stay Only’.)

But there are other signs which conjure up a slightly surreal set of events, and I spotted one at the Hilton in Milton Keynes (known with due deference to the power of rhyme as the ‘Milton Hilton’, and in case you think I am a complete sybarite, it is sufficiently concerned to shift rooms that it is doing a £45 a night B&B offer which almost every B&B would be pushed to match) – and I guess this means that the sign must appear in numerous Hiltons across the country, continent and even the globe. It is about smoking, and it says ‘If you observe someone smoking, a complaint may be made to the Duty Manager’. Now I think we all know what the signwriter intended to say, but the grammatical foul-up in the sentence conjures up a range of very odd consequences.

A nurse with a patient in tow spots a louche and spotty teenager with a Rothman’s alight, and hanging casually from his lip. ‘Oi you,’ she remonstrates, ‘put that out, now.’ She enters the adjacent lift (this is where the sign was), and goes down two floors. At the bottom, wearing their best blue uniforms, slightly but not entirely redolent of cabin crew get-up, is a posse of Hilton staff. Ignoring the patient, their leader steps forward and places a heavy hand on the nurse’s shoulder. ‘You,’ she says, ‘ have been observing a smoker on the second floor of the hotel – the floor in which all the rooms begin with 3, so that our staff have to indulge in tedious and protracted explanations – and a complaint has been texted to us. Please do not observe smokers, with a beady or otherwise eye, or we will confiscate your plastic key, the one you have to push into and pull out of the door five times before the green light goes on. Got it?’

Exeunt nurse and patient, duly chastened.

The sign is a bit like saying ‘If you wear no shoes on your feet, the manager will be ordered to shoot the chef.’ I know you think I am complaining about nothing, but it is best to be wary in these trying times (and incidentally, I see I was right in spades, even if it wasn’t a particularly Nostradamic prediction, about Michael Jackson. There is already a thriving industry about his corporeal and incorporeal state. He was broke. He had a fortune. He was heterosexual and had a mistress. He was homosexual. He died of prescription pills. He was murdered most foully. He has no brain. He has a brain. He was fit and healthy and dancing up a storm. He was gaunt and emaciated and could not put one spangled foot before another. From now on, almost anything you can say about MJ will be represented as true, somewhere, by somebody, and it will be more fantastical than you can think. Elvis, thou should’st be living this hour – oh, Michael was Elvis, was he?

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