Saturday, 14 January 2012

Notes from the Underground: The Unnoticed Board & the High Visibility Vest

At Oval Station there is a noticeboard upon which some mysterious London Underground staffer dutifully writes a quote of the day. I have made many trips through this station over the last couple of years, but have failed to notice this incongruous board until recently. Over the course of recent visits, the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aristotle and even Dr. Seuss have replaced regular station closure updates, last departure times or stern warnings concerning the unsafe surfaces of recently mopped platforms.

Apparently, this has gone on for some time. Since making this discovery I have also spotted similar messages at Stockwell and Angel, along with numerous peculiar personalised additions to railway station PA announcements, additions that I must have simply overlooked in the past. On a recent trip to York, whose grand 19th century station is a source of some regional pride, it took me almost an hour into waiting for a delayed connection to notice that the monotone concourse announcements were being recited entirely in verse:

“The 14:25 to Darlington is sadly delayed, apologies to travellers whose journeys waylaid.”  

Dr. Seuss is evidently a big influence on our frontline railway employees.

Like the largely unnoticed-noticeboard, the majority of passengers around me seemed entirely oblivious to the poetic oddity. They were unlistening until the exact moment that their destination was mentioned and only then would they pay enough momentary attention to get the information they needed.

The more scrutiny I give to the utilitarian environments of the city, the more apparent these little acts of everyday subversion appear. It’s fascinating how acutely this highlights our obliviousness to the monotony of the familiar and regular.

My compadre Tom modelling the classic 
High Visibility Vest at the Secret Garden Party.
Note that no one else can see him.

A similar oxymoron to the Notice Board is also found in the High Visibility Vest - a brightly coloured safety garment that grants the wearer with an incredible power of invisibility. At various music festivals and events, where I am required to move through herds of revellers, from stage to stage and usually at woefully short notice, I quickly recognised the value of the fluorescent tabard. Like a blue collar Moses, even the most belligerent crowds instinctively spread to allow safe and swift passage. The High-Vis wearer is also regularly waved through into the inner sanctum of backstage or other forbidden areas, with barely a glace at official security wristbands or passes. If someone is packing High-Vis they are projecting one simple statement, loud and clear: “I am working.”

The only proof that I am not entirely invisible is in the occasional hurried retreat of anyone I might pass who is under the misconception that this perceived display of authority is a threat to whatever illicit activities they might be indulging in. Prohibited glass bottles are tucked into jackets, bongs are hastily abandoned and awkward outdoor sexual manoeuvres are temporarily chastened.

No one pays the slightest attention to what the High-Vis wearer is doing - it is simply assumed they are meant to be there.

This special power is well known. Street artists have long used the Hi-Vis to openly write on walls, safe in the knowledge that passers by simply will not give them a second look. The famed Banksy often goes further, erecting a worker’s tent or stencilling official looking ‘graffiti permissions’ on walls. It is notable that the Securitas depot heist, the largest cash robbery in British history, was carried out by a crack team primarily using the deceptive masterstroke of Hi-Vis vests.

It is the perfect urban camouflage: the wearer becomes the unnoticed board. In time I would be unsurprised if feral urban foxes gradually evolved markings in the form of tiny yellow jackets in order to truly slip unseen through the city.

After a while, we stop looking at the things we see every day. We stop engaging with familiarity. Whilst working in a well-known high street warehouse superstore during the late ’90’s, we would amuse ourselves with endlessly nonsensical announcements on the in-store PA system. Despite increasing levels of puerility, no one paid the slightest attention. Just for the record, “Mrs Kuntz” was a real customer – and I would like to apologise to her now for any entirely accidental innuendo that may have crept into my requests that she come to the main counter.

'Rowdy' Roddy Piper (above) wakes up to
truth in advertising (below) in 'They Live'
In the movie They Live, John Carpenter’s 1988 science-fiction actioner, one time wrestling superstar ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper discovers a pair of special sunglasses allow him to wake up to the fact that aliens have taken over the Earth. These aliens occupy the highest level of the social elite and have been controlling humanity for decades.

Through his magical eyewear, Piper can not only see the true skeletal form of the disguised aliens but also the subliminal messages hidden within mass media and signage, used to ensure the human race OBEY, SUBMIT and STAY ASLEEP.

In contrast, the increasingly homogenous environment of our surroundings, our mass media, our clone high streets and sterilised, commercialised culture, ensures that we gradually start to become oblivious to the individual and the incongruous.

Unlike the secret invasion of They Live, bland uniformity is the illusion and the revealing effect of any unexpected crack in this uniformity of our surroundings might instead be a revelation and reminder to WAKE UP.