• Charles MacDonald

For all the good work he’s been doing, it’s almost a tragedy for him to act up like this. Five years until retirement, in one of the few industries employees can still be sure of that clean trajectory, and he sabotages not only the companies fine reputation, but all the goodwill he’s built up over the last decades. I myself did not enter this industry to reprimand people. I started on the shop floor, proved my diligence, and have since risen through the company’s ranks. There was, for a while, a question as to whether becoming management meant leaving my colleagues behind, but it’s not something to dwell on whilst building a family. And ambition is a virtue. Appropriate ambition is a virtue.


I leave my desk, open the door, and welcome in Mr Harris. He is as smartly dressed as he usually is, as he ought to be, but his dick is still out. He walks into my office, stands awkwardly as I sit down behind my desk, his face sheepish. He wants to wear the pride of someone who will be vindicated by history; of Galileo refusing to recant his new model of the world, of a boy in borstal taking a beating rather than rat on another inmate, or of an aristocrat on the way to the guillotine. Certain in the injustice of this moment. The pride, even, of Jesus on the cross, dare I say. It’s a pride he cannot carry off.


“Mr Harris. You’ve worked a great many years for this company, and you’ve contributed an awful lot. For that I thank you. But what time is this to get ideas beyond your station? This is a warning, you’re not losing your job, but please please just remember what this institution is worth to you. I want simply to formally ask you to arrange yourself, and to remind you that this factory is strictly for dick-sucking”, I say, tearing my eyes from his exposed dong back to his forlorn face.


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The townspeople look up from their simple comings and goings. One looks up from coveting his neighbours ass, for example. Another looks up from worshipping false idols. Another, from killing. There are those amongst them doing things we, the informed, wouldn’t call sins, but they’re few, far between, and quiet. They look up to see a silhouette on a nearby cliff-top. Moses bearing tablets in front of a rabid sky. Bearing down on them. Bearing holy witness to their misdeeds. Bearing a communion with God. His voice booms over the town, lost, however, as the crowd surges towards a smaller local cliff. A figure stands there also, this one with an even radder message. Low slung jeans, sun glasses, a dirty tank top with an upside down smiley face on it, jaw churning away, a radio on one shoulder, and a sign held in the hand above the other. He presses play. A fast and rhythmic bass makes the crowd go wild. They throw their hands up to the lord, our DJ puts his speaker on the ground and lifts the sign high above him, his head swinging back and forth hard to the music. It reads “What if it was all a dream”.


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A simple schlub makes his way down the street. Walking in the road by the curb, he kicks puddles with his feet. A rose in one hand, and dragging the other, he teeters between raggedy and neat.


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Whoever this guy is, he’s not your typical teacher. Rendered entirely in black and white, high contrast, the end of a cigarette burns white beneath the brim of his hat. He’s leaning on the wall, looking down at his perfect pinstripe suit. “Now listen here kids because I’m only telling you this once”. He looks up, coolly, takes a hat from his head and a drag from his cigarette. Our eyes move uneasily from him to the coloured projection up to his right. It shows two men, one a sort of caveman, a low brow, dirty skin, matted hair on his head and face, hair over much of his body, smiling meekly up at a broad red-haired viking. The viking is magnificent. He looks strong, and is covered in beautiful, ornate armour. He also has a beard, braided neatly. He smiles back, and has one hand rested on the caveman’s shoulder, the other gently touching his face. I myself am transfixed by the scene. “These guys are tough, and if it can happen to them you better damn well know that it can happen to you.” The teacher looks up, dead at me. We exhale together, smoke falling from his mouth, a sigh falling from mine. “In this day and age more than ever you are under threat. Where once men were ruddy and alcoholic, they are now smooth and have nice teeth. Where once they were rude, now they are polite. Where once they hunched and groaned, they now stand shirtless with their arms around each others shoulders. Their bodies are perfect, their manners flawless. Their appetite for food is for good food alone. Their appetite for other bodily pleasures? Well... I am here to ask you to remain vigilant. There are those amongst you who will find these men to be hot. Don’t do it. There are those among you who may one day be hot men yourselves. Don’t. Do. It. If there are of you in this room who both find these men to be hot and are hot yourselves?” I’m ecstatic and terrified. He takes a final drag, drops his cigarette butt on the carpet and stubs it out with his toe. “Then for God’s sake don’t make it easy to find on the internet.”


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The sacred duty to vote. Democracy manifest. All the biographical churn of this young man’s youthful ideologies, distilled towards a simple decision between candidates. I privilege a peer, an equal, to speak for me. To re-present myself, my humble body, alongside all these other humble bodies in our brave nation’s political communion. This day, more than any other, I feel myself to be part of society. The battle of ideas is waged alongside the battle of bodies, and both leave dismembered, mutilated forms in their wake. And to those I have a duty. To all who fought those battles. The losers as much as the winners, equal parts in the awesome movement of progress that allows, for now, a fragile and righteous democracy to manifest. That dream of our forefathers cares not which way I vote, but that I do, and that the fine reason and fine feeling that God has granted me may be used. The decision, therefore, faces me and me alone, just as it faces each of us alone as we enter that sacred booth. And enter it I do, ushered through a primary school by the fine community members who midwife such a feat. In times such as these, my small advocation is an honour. And for whom? Typically, for the downtrodden. The unfortunate. The poor. The meek. And yet, here I stand, the ballot paper before me, pencil poised above a decision I cannot make. In one box, “Socialism, bettering the collective sensation of humanity”, in the other, “Fascism, it’ll be rough but we GUARANTEE you’ll get a girlfriend”.


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What a tragedy to pass. In one window, a giant woman, four metres tall, and a regular sized man, breaking each other’s hearts as they realise it’s not to be. It’s easier for them to say it was inevitable. But how can they know which flaws are love’s and which are theirs. Who’s to say if it’s the world at fault or if it’s themselves. Maybe they just don’t care enough to make it work. Maybe they’ve been told they shouldn’t, that navigating a size difference like that would come at the expense of too much else. That being apart is a kind of self-respect. In the next window along, the neighbour exults at his breakthrough. After years of study and research, of reputations won and lost, of friends become foes, of shame, pain, violence, ethical horror, a sullied soul and nothing else to show for a life lived in dedication, the shrinking ray works. What a tragedy to pass, whistling.


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A queen’s drummer, with his big furry hat, wears headphones and listens to an album of military drum rolls. Partly, he likes it. But he’s been told to like it, and he wants to be the sort of person who does like it. Perhaps the most passionate fans once convinced themselves to love it, he tells himself. The drummer hears the commotion of the queen leaving Buckingham palace behind him. He’s a professional, and he doesn’t turn around. Even if he had, how would he know that through her headphones plays the upbeat synthetic rhythms and warbles of a seventeen year old from Atlanta with a troubled childhood and tattoos all over his face.


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The great Mario crosses the town square. The town’s children are kicking balls, ten year olds mocking eight year olds for their clumsiness, or playing games in shaded doorways. Chatting mothers sit inside with coffees or lean on walls outside smoking. The children and mothers ignore each other until a ball runs too close to a mother’s leg, a child gets a querying, threatening look, and the children move to play further out into the square. The great Mario smokes also, and keeps his hat low over his eyes, as if to hide the world from him and him from the world. As the great Mario’s reputation precedes him, however, his M betrays him. The children run towards him, smiling, shouting his name. They crowd around him in a circle, respectfully leaving him room to walk. They’re laughing, blushing, asking questions, and he gives a reluctant smile, then cracks, beams, and is suddenly the Mario of legend and a gift to them all. He double-jumps playfully onto the heads of the children making his trademarked sounds as the children chant his theme-song in unison. The mothers are looking on, exchange knowing glances, smoking, smiling, quipping about plumbing and princesses out the sides of their mouths. The great Mario plays his part, and feels nothing from it. It’s not the princesses he’s saved, or the villains he’s defeated. It’s those princesses he didn’t save, and those villains to whom he lost, whose shadows walk with him in the hollow of each citizen’s fawning word.


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All great artists are freaks, I remind myself as the wards belt me down to a padded table. Through coincidence or design they’re necessarily freaks at the time of creating great art, because all sensible brains think the same things. Only the freak brain can think the extraordinary. And, seeing as everyone is inherently conservative and fundamentally wrong, only the freak brain can break new ground. The freak brain is the only tool we have to grasp towards a more nicely-illuminated future. My brain as is, as I’ve explained to the doctors tending to me today, is bound on one side by the sensible. Consensus reality has taken root too deeply, and each idea that crosses my mind is sent from an ugly social whole. What I need to do, is to give it a nudge, a simple jolt. Such that these cartoons might transcend. I’m too late for a troubled child-hood, for developing interesting personality flaws, for father issues transformed into a will for the world to know me, or to develop a necessarily obsessive dedication to enlightenment. The doctor wets my temples, and brings the covered metal orbs into contact. He leans over my face, a chomping bit paused outside of my mouth. “You’re totally sure you want to go through with this?”, she says. “Dr, if there’s any chance at all this will make my cartoons even a little wavier, then put that bit in my mouth and please light me up”.


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You’re telling me, that out of everyone sat around this table, I’m somehow the weird one. I, who have exactly the same glasses as you all, am the freak. Whilst directly to my left sits a woman who isn’t wearing any glasses at all. That’s what you’re telling me. That, somehow, just because I don’t have a bob I’m more outlandish, I’m less welcome, that someone who has a bob but no glasses. With regards to most of you, I get it. You have the glasses. you have the bob. It adds up. I wouldn’t call you freaks, particularly not in this setting. I just think there’s something messed up about how you’re making me into some kind of pariah because my hair doesn’t match when you could equally well make this woman, who frankly I don’t like, into a pariah instead of me. That makes me feel, for one thing bad, and also like this isn’t about the hair at all. There’s something else about me that you dislike, that you’re just not talking about. I don’t need to wear glasses. We’ve spoken about this, a couple of the girls and I were talking quite recently, I’ve not kept it a secret. I wear them so that I fit in here. And this woman isn’t even making that effort. And you may well shoot right back and say to me “well why don’t you make an effort with the hair”, and this is something I’ve talked about before with a few of you too: it doesn’t suit me. I had a bob, and it didn’t suit me, and my face hasn’t exactly got any less round in the last few years, so that’s not something that’s going to change, okay?

  • Charles MacDonald

Off the high street of a city or town you’ll find the fascias of independent businesses adorned with photographs and word-art printed on banners or plastic sheets. You’re also more likely to find businesses which list their services on the outside of their shops. In the centre of every city in the UK, without fail, you’ll find the same dozen businesses lit up with their light-box lettering in well-known logos. The only other written information these businesses display is likely to be Sale signs in a window surrounding a curated examples of a trend, and the occasional slogan. The distinction here, broadly, is between shops confident that people will enter for the brand alone, and shops that feel the need to actively sell the benefits they provide to customers. The shift towards modern branding that happened in the first few decades of the 20th Century, from selling features to selling a name, is an unfinished and confused process. Amongst all this you’ll find the occasional piece of hand-lettering on a traditional pub, independent retail outlet, or homely cafe. Occasionally you’ll find an area dense with it, mandated by a council to maintain or build a certain vibe. The history of sign-writing is evident in our town centres, and speaks to the history of technological and economic changes. The sign-writers I’ve met are extremely familiar with this history, in part because the older ones have witnessed first-hand changes to the industry over the past few decades. Another reason is that there’s undoubtedly an element of nostalgia and revivalism to many sign-writers, indeed to anybody involved in a traditional craft.


A question to me is as to what exactly the nostalgia is for. On the one hand, that pining admiration of skill that I still feel around sign-writers today is exacerbated by how ordinary it was historically, by the scale of sign-shops and the number of artisans. That ordinariness speaks to the other factor: that the spaces we move amongst have lost specificity in the place of branding. It’s actually unclear to me whether sign-writers work in branding. In one sense, they obviously do in that their commercial work is designed in tune with the aesthetic of a business, and the values it means to project. On the other hand, there’s an objective rightness to good lettering that runs quite contrary to the concept of branding. “Eye appeal” is, to some, a scientific standard, and one that brands can consciously flaunt in favour of some other stolen aesthetic.


Signage is one small aspect of the homogenisation of culture, but it’s illustrative. Just as with the environment, it’s difficult for one individual to comprehend the haemorrhage of cultural diversity during the last few decades. By culture I don’t mean entertainment; we’re probably more often entertained now that we have been before (you can use twitter at work, for example). Cultural diversity, instead, in the more subtle sense that city centres would have looked and felt more different from each other fifty years ago than they do today. It’s the slow imposition of sameness across towns and cities that accompanies the liberalisation of finance and investment. This is the global issue of feeling nothing in an H & M in Hong Kong, or hearing Drake played at a party one night and in an airport the next morning. Just as Drake produces his tracks once and they’re disseminated in the place of diverse musical forms, so is the H&M logo designed on CAD once, then cut from plastic and installed thousands and thousands of times. In this sense, the “rightness” of the lettering is undermined by the fashion of the sign’s production. The principle here is that aesthetic judgement is also political judgement. This isn’t always a popular principle designers, but I imagine craftspeople might feel differently. I never would have recognised vinyl cut in a “casual” painted style to be insincere until I realised how that lettering form was dictated by mechanics of a brush. Equally, sincere digital aesthetics from Web1.0/Geocities through to DeepDream images share some strange charm in that they hide nothing of their digital, inhuman production.


The decline in sign-writing over the past few decades could well be as much to do with the consolidation of high-street outlets as it has to do with rise in vinyl lettering. After all, just because the technology of vinyl should exist, there’s no reason it should automatically take the place of paint. Even if it’s cheaper and easier to do, vinyl would only impact sign-writing given a certain set of circumstances: that price is valued over the broader impact of a sign’s production, and that a modern aesthetic is valued over the “traditional” or “retro” aesthetics that painting encourages. It’s no wonder that traditional sign-writing declined when more and more high-street shops have been one of a few big brands. The sort of economic change this entails are well-known, and the stuff of modern life: fewer skilled people working less meaningful jobs, fuelled on debt. Whilst this pattern exists in all sorts of industries, signage is useful as a means of thinking about it in that signs are designed to be visible and to define a space to the needs of commerce. Perhaps the eye appeal of a logo remains the same, but to be greeted by that same relentless H & M sign in every city I’ve ever been to is an ultimately unappealing numbing of both high-streets and myself. Unappealing, and the face of a system of production and distribution that we know to be inadequate to the real needs of people globally.


An exercise familiar to nostalgics is to walk down a high street and imagine how it might have been decorated in a previous time. Perhaps a single town would have the same diversity of letter forms it has today, but across the country there must have been a far healthier range. And instead of a few companies providing thousands of cut plastic signs to a few companies, hundred of local sign-writers could have been produced a far more diverse body of signage to a more diverse range of companies. Old sign-writers’ modern counterparts are not just sign-writers, but all the people who subsist on the less meaningful work that has taken craft’s place. Ultimately, any nostalgia for better, more diverse letters, is also a nostalgia for a different set of economic relations.

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