Witness This
Ernest Hemingway, the master of reductionist prose, once claimed that a writer should be able to tell a story in just six words. When challenged to give an example, he replied “For sale: baby shoes, never used”. Japanese writers had already taken brevity to a whole new sublime level with the seventeen-syllable Haiku form of poetry. [‘A day of quiet gladness / Mount Fuji is veiled / in misty rain’ – Bashō c1680; or, if you prefer, ‘To convey one’s mood / in seventeen syllables / is very diffic’ – John Cooper Clarke c1979]…

Today, the Metropolitan Police have taken this literary device and added a twist – reducing news events down to the bare bones, printing them as stories on attractive fluorescent yellow boards, and then placing them at the exact location where those events originally occurred. They call them Witness Appeal signs.

Think of them as static, silent town criers, or the antithesis of those blue plaques that alert tourists to the former dwelling places of the great and the good. Witness Appeal signs are not, strictly speaking, signs at all – they ‘signify’ nothing. They cannot be interpreted, they leave little to the imagination – they just are. The philosopher A J Ayer, when asked what he found most evocative of Paris, answered “a road sign with ‘Paris’ written on it”. I think he would have enjoyed Witness Appeal signs; they reduce both the essence of a story and the nature of a ‘sign’ down to a pure, literal, sometimes crass, always entertaining form. That’s why, sometimes, when I think of London, I think of a yellow sign with “Can you help us?” written on it.

This collection of signs accumulated over several years. As Nick Ross patiently explains every week on Crimewatch: serious crime is still very rare in this country, so don’t have nightmares…
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