English warnings, an introduction to polite absurdity, and two Scotsmen

from a table in the library

It is a quiet night in Cambridge, as most nights are here, and all through the college, not a grad student is stirring, except me, of course.

Some of my precious chocolate pudding sent from home is chilling, literally, on my angled window sill as I type this; I’ll soon eat it to ease a sore throat. As the minifridge ordered long, long ago has yet to arrive (more on bemusing, bungling British bureaucracy later), I’ve found that my “chilling sill” is a rather nice place to cool things such as soda and pudding.

I figure it’s OK, as there are no explicitly polite warnings about it … yes, warnings. It seems like the English are very polite when it comes to warnings. All the colleges have little signs, some in multiple languages, warning you off the grass. Only the dons and a select other few can walk on the lawns, which are laying mostly fallow this time of year, but which are otherwise kept more manicured than a typical American golf course.

they really do mean it, really

Even my more laid-back graduate college, being one of the “lesser ones,” according to my taxi driver (who quickly apologized, explaining that Wolfson is simply new, and “new” as in not hundreds of years old and founded by a king, queen or other member of the royal family) still forbids you from alighting on the grassy realms carefully maintained by our head gardener (oh yes, we have a whole team; it’s a very serious business here, you know, gardening).

Some warnings are apologetic. “Sorry,” the intercom in the University Library cheerfully announces in the late afternoons (if I recall correctly), “but the tea room will be closing in 20 minutes.” Other warnings beg your pardon, as in, “sorry, but there is no such machine,” as the electronic letters on the device in the laundry room scroll apologetically. In the U.S., the same machine would probably just say “error” when you punched in the wrong number. Even the buses say, “Sorry … not in service.”

Even the homeless people, and I do always feel for them, as it is very cold outside, tend to be impeccably polite when you say “no-thank-you” to their requests for “spare pence.” One said to me the other day, “no worries, sir, have a good day.” Another not-quite homeless man, selling magazines (like the Real Change salesmen in Seattle), when I told him sorry, that I’d rather not have one, told me not to feel sorry, but  “be happy.” But the subject of the legendary penchant for extreme English politeness  is worthy of another post unto itself (or many posts), for some other time soon, though it will probably pop up as a recurrent theme.

this one's a bit more insistent

Back to apologies. If you added the words, “… or you will be shot” to most of them, it would sound quite natural. “Please do not take photographs on the college grounds … or you will be shot.” Or “please form orderly queues … or you will be shot,” and so on. People would obey them no less promptly, for following decorum and not making a fuss are an important thing in England, from what I can tell. Warnings are not really so much passive-aggressive, as they might be back home, just well regarded.

To put it another way, Cambridge is a silly place, or, as my friend Neil always says upon experiencing the latest silly English custom (as they are just as new to him as they are to me most of the time), “this would have never happened at Edinburgh.” Neil went to the university there, and is an introspective Scot who stands a head taller than me, adding to the gravity of his practical pronouncements. We share an affinity for the 18th century, and for American history, which Neil is studying here in our program.

I’ll close with a wee bit of a note about another Scotsman I met.

Last Thursday I was reading in my room, as I am wont to do. I had not seen anyone yet that day besides myself (which is becoming less common, actually, which I don’t mind at all, as God provides opportunities to get out and see friends, or at least colleagues when I can’t meet friends, more often this term). But it was a very slow day, last week, and grey too. I was feeling somewhat mellow, and more lost of Serious Thought that even Neil can summon at his most pensive.

“Knock-knock.”

A grandfatherly workman from Glasgow in Scotland named Harry was painting the doors on my floor.

“I’ll be done in a jiffy,” he says, after I let him in. “You can stay if you’d like.”

I told him I would like to, if he didn’t mind, and kept reading. He didn’t mind at all, he said. He painted in silence; I read some more. But after I while I realized that it’s not too often that you have a gray-haired Glosgowian painting your door, so I figured it’d be fun to try to get to know him a bit better.

A Korean war veteran, Harry had been married for 37 years to a wife some 7 years younger than he, a lady he met in Cambridge in the 1950s coming up from working in London, or what they call the City. He has two sons, one of whom works for a bank in the city, and a granddaughter. They visited Disney World with her last year, and Harry was impressed by the wide streets and open spaces in Florida. I learned that His father was gone for six years during the Second World War, fighting the Nazi’s from North Africa Africa to Italy’s Monte Cassino; his family didn’t see him during all that time.

Harry told me this while painting contentedly, with a soft “aye” thrown in every now and then in assent (being a budding historian, I loved talking to a man closer to the history I study; he was a patient listener, and also had some good advice).  When he had finished, he called me “lad” when I thanked him for doing such a good job on my door (“you’re welcome, lad,” says he). As we said goodbye, I told him I hoped to see him around the college, and he said he hoped the same. A kind man, that Harry.

I’ll try to post a few more times this week, albeit perhaps a little shorter. The word for this week should be “knackered,” incidentally, so look for that Thursday. Good night, and God-speed from England.

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One thought on “English warnings, an introduction to polite absurdity, and two Scotsmen

  1. At the college I attended there was the same proliferation of signs. It seems that students are especially prone to the most absurd accidents, at least in the minds of the ‘sign-makers’. At one point I came across a response in the form of graffiti scrawled on a pillar already bearing several of these cryptic messages warning of disaster. It said, “Please, in God’s name, no more signs. They cause bad luck.”
    TOG

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