Signs of the Times

Sign in ArmleyMy weekday commute takes me through Armley, which lies to the west of Leeds city centre. For the past several weeks, a large billboard which generally advertises a pets and aquarium store has been obscured by a poster which stated the following: “Golf is a Passport for a Dirty Weekend Away with the Lads, Wake Up Girls, a Naive Wife”. The sign bore the mysterious initials “TUD”. Today, this sign was replaced by another one, also signed off by “TUD”, which showed some blurry photos of restrooms supposedly taken by Heathrow Airport’s security cameras. The legend on this sign states, “Did you really think Heathrow Airport don’t have cameras here?”

It’s important to state at once that these are fakes. The “golf” sign has made an appearance in other parts of the country, the Heathrow sign utilises precisely the same photos as ones which were used for a similar “Dublin Airport” sign which appeared in Ireland. The mysterious “TUD” is apparently an Irish artist; he has previously challenged people with other signs to “Honk if You Secretly Wear Women’s Underwear” and stated a celebrity named Alexa Chung is a goddess. TUD apparently stands for “The Ugly Duckling”. If this artist has a manifesto, it comes from a one line statement on his or her blog, “I do solemnly swear to fulfill my new years resolution, to cause divilment, general mayhem, be the thorn in the side and foam pie in the face of all those deserving”. Personally, I wonder what Ms. Chung did to merit this attention.

While “TUD”‘s signs are not particularly clever and his repertoire doesn’t improve with repetition, there is nevertheless something to be learned from these billboards. Shame seems no longer to be shame unless it occurs publicly; the fictional vindictive wife in Armley’s narrative blasts her husband to pieces by exposing his frailties to the world. The storyline also implies that the husband feels no guilt unless his sins are open to the public. Furthermore, his conscience needs to be prodded by the presentation of photographic evidence. This story is in perfect keeping with our era; we are presently living in Bart Simpson world in which morality disappears in the quiet, and if caught, the first recourse is to say, “I didn’t do it. You didn’t see me do it. You can’t prove anything.”

Those with a more classical sense of right and wrong may believe that scruples are not dependent on scrutiny: they are there even when no one observes. I don’t speak out of any sense of moral superiority; I am just as much a sinner as anyone else, and I have done some things in my life of which I’m not proud. But the public exposure of my faults is not the only method to provoke my shame, it is the disgrace that comes from having done wrong and been wrong, to have indulged selfishness as opposed to remaining true to principle.

MP Duck HouseOne of the most disturbing aspects of the Parliamentary expenses scandal was the fact that regret, reticence and repentance didn’t arise until the public’s gaze was fixed upon the MPs’ avarice. A refrain was often heard, “we followed the rules”; but adherence to guidelines is one thing, the morality of dipping into the public purse for say, the price of a duck house or even a lemon is quite another. The public reacted strongly to these allegations perhaps because the thought was, “Have they no shame?” Had they no idea that it is simply wrong to do such things, even if one can successfully get away with it?

But this lack of self-control in government may just reflect society’s present predispositions. Earlier this year, I took a weekend trip to Barcelona; there was a long bus ride back from Barcelona Sants train station to the aiport, and three Englishmen were the last to pile on prior to departure. They appeared to be genuinely the worse for wear: unshaven, unkempt, they looked like they hadn’t slept since prior to coming to Spain. One of them had crumpled banknotes in his hand to pay the bus fare and carried his passport in his teeth. There was a problem: the bus was full to bursting. The driver was reticent about taking them given that they would have to stand in the well next to the door. One of the Englishmen, in a sweat stained grey t-shirt, and red-faced from a combination of too much booze and sunshine, shouted in a slurred voice that he had to get back to his wife. I wondered what his other half would make of him; his friend lay down in the aisle and promptly fell into an alcohol induced sleep. Their weekend may or may not have been a dirty one, but it certainly was reckless. There were many tourists like them falling in and out of restaurants and bars on the streets of Barcelona, singing with voices that weren’t designed for the task and downing beer after beer until oblivion or obliviousness overtook them. The sole concern of those on the bus, however, was probably having to explain it all, not from having conducted themselves like drunken fools. True morality should kick in before the first pint glass is hoisted in anger or the initial stirrings of illicit flirtation begin to rustle or the introductory expense claim is filled out inaccurately. TUD’s works are effective only if there is someone out there who has to worry about having gone on a dirty golf weekend; the state of shame is so poor, in my opinion, that I even considered the possibility that the sign was a prelude for advertising. I reckoned that a travel company could use the following slogan, “For a weekend you’ll always remember and forever regret”, and then there would be packages for Ibiza or Malaga in the offing.

I assume that TUD will continue to push “foam pies into the face of the deserving” with other billboards in other parts of the country. I suspect the effect will be limited thanks to Google; the fakery is more than just a fact, it’s a known fact. Nevertheless, the ugly truths that TUD cackhandedly exposes remain. As I write this, a husband somewhere is perhaps perusing Ryanair and plotting a weekend flight from responsibility to Spain. An MP perhaps is looking at a spreadsheet and may be considering what to put on expenses. The businessman may be pricing up his company’s products and wondering what extortionate margin may be added. The stay at home wife may look longingly at a neighbour and feel the slight ache of desire, its indulgence offering temporary liberation from the humdrum. Shame should kick in, bring back thoughts of others: the spouse who would be disappointed, the customers who would be ripped off and had the misery of difficult times intensified, the constituents who would be appalled. What’s worrisome is the frequency with which this consideration is likely to be engaged, if at all; it’s a sign of the times.

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