Signs of the Times

“No Shirt, No Shoes, No Mask, No Service”: Leon, Kings Cross, March 2021.

Without any hard data to back this up, I suspect that one of the few economic beneficaries of the pandemic may be the graphic design and printing sectors. In the last year, we have been confronted with a profusion of signs, placards, stickers, floor decoration and other material intended to remind us of the measures we should all know by now: wear a mask, maintain social distancing, and wash your hands. As one walks along the streets of London, there is a huge diversity of this material on doors, windows, even taxis and buses. At Kings Cross, the screen looms above the cavernously empty ticket hall.

“On your journey”, Kings Cross Station, March 2021.

Some of it is corporate, some of it home-made. Some of it deals in symbols reducing “face” and “mask” to their essential shapes, some use clipart cartoons which denote gender, age, and even ethnicity. All of it, however, is confronting the same challenge: to balance the need to create clear rules and prohibitions while at the same time encouraging customers. No cafe or restaurant or bookshop or supermarket wants to turn people away, but nor do they wish to spread the disease or draw the wrath of others.

Materials must be firm, emppowering staff to resolve disputes and protests with the minimum of fuss and the associated risk of exposure. And they must present the establishment or institution as responsible and aware of the risks. This is quite a challenge and the process is not yet over: social distancing and masks are likely to be with us for some time. If the idea of “vaccine passports” goes ahead, a way will need to be found to communicate the new reality again.

“Supermarket Sweep”: Lidl, Kentish Town, January 2021.

in any event, these tableaux of stickers, posters, labels and so on will constitute an essential part of any history of the pandemic. I doubt that these will become as iconic as the Ministry of Information productions of WW2 – it is in fact a real regret of mine that these were not more directly repurposed. After all, Coughs and sneezes spread diseases – help keep the nation fighting fit! The echoes of the war are to be found though:

“We Can Do It!”: Granary Square, March 2021.

But the history of WW2 iconography shows that cometh the hour, cometh the symbol. Keep Calm and Carry On, the suburban mantra of the 2000s and 2010s was deemed too patronising for Britain during the war; but it served as a faux-historic icon for the (misnamed) age of austerity under the Cameron-Clegg coalition, and then the jittery histrionics of the yawning gap between the 2016 referendum and our eventual departure from the EU. The flimsy nature of its symbolism is shown most clearly in that it has been less present in the last year – when it might have been vaguely appropriate – than before. As ever, history will be written in the future, understanding will come after the fact.


Feature: Discarded

The way objects have been left on the pavement has been an interesting and unfortunate side-effect of the pandemic. Scientists are concerned that the growth in use of single-use masks and gloves, in particular, is creating a wave of “Covid-waste”, but I’ve seen hand sanitiser and filters as well. None of these products are biodegradable, and all pose risks to others when clearing them up.

Sometimes these objects land in ways that are striking, even sculptural. The stories they suggest are evocative. Who wore them? Why did they take them off? What happened next?

Blow-up, Camden, May 2020 (C) Jaime Ashworth

This doesn’t, however, change the core messages. Firstly, wear a mask (it protects others while their masks protect you). Secondly, take your rubbish home (discarded masks and gloves are a health hazard to clear up).

Right-hand, Camden, April 2020. (C) Jaime Ashworth
Glove and blossom, Camden, May 2020 (C) Jaime Ashworth
The Kiss, Camden, July 2020 (C) Jaime Ashworth
Crumpled, Kentish Town, July 2020 (C) Jaime Ashworth
Formalwear 2020, Granary Square (C) Jaime Ashworth

The Mourning After

The death of Queen Elizabeth II will dominate the headlines and much of public attention in the next few weeks. Doubtless, more think-pieces, op-eds, and columns will try to analyse the national response from any and every conceivable angle. But I wanted to get out this morning and be among the events as they happened. Perhaps not the first draft of history, but notes toward one.

The Mall was crowded and quiet. A constant trickle of people made their way down from Admiralty Arch and toward the Victoria Monument. As I walked, the intensity of the moment increased. The face of the Queen looks out from almost every bus-stop and electronic billboard in Central London, but here there were few images. Instead, umbrellas and flowers, and more than a few damp eyes. Black ties and suits were common among men: many women wore formal clothing. Journalists were everywhere, a crescent of gazebos filled with journalists and technicians from all over the world. I spoke with a Polish journalist, who told me that the Queen was “symbolem klasy” – a symbol of class. In so many ways, many of them deeply problematic.

The procession past the gates of Buckingham Palace was moving swiftly, though many broke away to linger at the fence, gazing into the empty forecourt. Cards, flags, flowers, messages of grief and gratitude. Paddington Bear was a recurring motif. By the gates a crush developed, with a forest of hands holding mobile phones. I made my way along the fence, looking at the crowds behind the barriers: waiting, I now realise, for the King to arrive. On the Victoria Monument, it was quieter: a child slipped through the barriers, decorated with EIIR, one of the many things that we will have to accept as reminders of the past rather than indicators of the present.

The police and Household Cavalry tried to clear the way on the Mall: one rider fell from his horse, but quickly got up again, his pride more damaged than anything else. Tour guides led their groups through the chaos, heading toward the action as the rain came down.

As I made my way north through Trafalgar Square, the bells of St.Martin-in-the-Fields tolled. Some people paused, others passed quickly. We are not yet at the moment where, like yesterday, the rolling coverage willl build the tension to a fierce, taut hush again. For now, the city goes about its business, with street food eaten and assignations made under the benevolent smile of a monarch who is no longer present, but is surely not yet gone. We are at a crossroads, and we do not yet know where the future will lead us. But lead us it surely will, hopefully at peace with ourselves and with others. It is unquestionably, however problematic one might feel this to be, what she would have wanted.

Slava Ukraina

The Ukrainian flag billows in the breeze on Whitehall. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, February 2022.

I spent about three hours at the demonstration in Whitehall today, joining hundreds of Ukrainians as they protested the Russian invasion. No words can really express the atmosphere: deadly serious in their desperate appeal for help from the international community, passionate in their belief in those defending Kyiv and other cities; but gracious and clear-sighted as well. This was, to make a distinction that is sometimes tenuous, intensely patriotic but not nationalistic.

I had a brief conversation with two women, standing with their backs to the Cabinet Office, looking out at the crowd with tears in their eyes. They both had family in Ukraine: one in the west, the other in Luhansk, in many ways the eye of the storm. Her name is Olga and she wanted to say how grateful she is for the outpouring of support.

Olga. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, February 2022.

Was there bad language? Absolutely. The response of Ukrainian troops on Snake Island yesterday to a Russian warship asking for their surrender is becoming iconic, and to exclude those placards from any visual record would be absurd. One man even taught me how to say it in Ukrainian. But there was humour and compassion in abundance too. As the day comes to a close and the defence of Ukraine enters its third night, I hope this post may help to reassure and comfort those at the sharp end that they are not forgotten, and that we will continue to demand an adequate, effective and appropriate response from our government.

Feature: Social Distance

“Walk this Way”, Camden Town, September 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

As we emerged out of lockdown, one of the striking changes for many was the profusion of signage and other reminders to change one of our most basic instincts – to be close. The change started in February, as we were advised to keep 1m apart (still the WHO standard). But shortly after, government advice changed to 2m, and then in May it changed again to 1m+ – if you have to be at closer proximity, ensure you take other measures to protect yourself and others from the virus.

So, what does the WHO say? According to its “Advice for the Public” page, we should:

“Maintain at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself and others. Why? When someone coughs, sneezes, or speaks they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain virus. If you are too close, you can breathe in the droplets, including the COVID-19 virus if the person has the disease.”

But of course this depends on people being able to estimate distance accurately. So 2m was an excellent choice for public consumption: even if people were at less than this distance they had some margin before they were at risk. As in the image below, the public quickly adapted to the concept, though estimations of the distance were erratic.

“Social Distance”, Coal Drops Yard, Kings Cross, March 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

The major obstacle in implementing this was described in detail by the _Streets research group at the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture: only 36% of London streets had sufficiently wide pavements. In this context, necessary street furniture – bins, trees, lamp-posts, bus shelters, benches – become obstacles. And the option of stepping into the street is not one really open to many city-dwellers. So we are confronted with choke points: sometimes created by objects bearing the warnings themselves.

“You First”, Bloomsbury, May 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth
“Stay 2m Apart”, Euston, August 2020.

These tensions persist. We are hurriedly adapting a city in which living cheek by jowl was a fact of life into one in which we have to be divided from each other for our own safety.

“Watch Your Step”, Camden Town, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Road Narrowed”, Kentish Town, June 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

Particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, a lot of people were concerned to point out that what is popularly called social distancing is actually physical distancing. We are no less a society if we have to spread out, no less connected if we must smile with our eyes rather than our mouths.

“Respecting Social Distance”, Kentish Town, July 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Morning”, Camden Town, September 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

But more could be done to turn aspirational unity into a reality. The British technology expert Rachel Coldicutt (@rachelcoldicutt) recently tweeted a link to New Zealand’s portfolio of social distancing signage, part of an integrated website which contains clear instructions and guidance for each alert level and downloadable materials to print – a consistent “ecosystem” of signs and alerts which facilitates compliance. Coldicutt highlighted that the UK has yet to develop such a consistent approach. In fact, to continue the metaphor, the UK is more a Darwinian jungle of competing graphics, symbols and designs. At least the graphic design and printing sectors of the economy are being kept in business. Though the translating industry is clearly less of a priority. The New Zealand website has a whole section devoted to translations of the materials into 24 languages. The NHS COVID 19 App launched this week, meanwhile, doesn’t have translation into Polish – though Polish remains the second most common nationality in the UK.

The laissez-faire free market in signage is creating confusion. Neighbouring shops use different measures and different images to inform their customers of what they want them to do. More confusingly, many of those images use identical symbols: the overwhwelming impression is that there are different rules for different people. And in fact this is often actually the case: using my nearest high street as an example, the customers in the greasy spoon at one end are advised to maintain 1m distance, while patrons of the upscale bakery up the road keep 2m apart. There is literally one rule for the poor and another for the rich. I want to explore the different problems associated with the signs themselves separately, so I’ll leave this point for now, but at some point the differential instructions will result in differential outcomes – if indeed they aren’t already. It is part and parcel of the government’s failure to really think beyond the laissez-faire, free-market dogma of its ideology. As long as they can eat cake, it seems, the rest of us can take our chances.

Feature: Masks (II)

“Ritual is intimately connected with the mask, either in the wearing that hides the true face, or in the adoption of a public face.” – Subhash Kak, ‘Ritual, Masks and Sacrifice’ (2004)

“Formal”, London July 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

“Masks are boundary objects, mediating between ideas of contamination and con-
tainment, purity and pollutions, and life and death. Since the outbreak of COVID‐19, however, they perform a new kind of boundary work: they demarcate and negotiate the relationship not only between the body and the body politic, the individual citizen and the national whole. In the hands of politicians, the political logic of masking reinforces other governmental practices – from the imposition of travel bans, the neglect of migrant populations and stigmatisation of certain minorities – in defining the permeable boundaries between nation and self, self and other from the invading virus.”
– Nicolette Makovicky, ‘The national[ist] necropolitics of masks’ (2020)

“Breathe”, Kings Cross, June 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

“I wish to underline that the configuration of this apparatus as a mask of reason was predicated upon the redefinition of what pertains to reason and what not. If it could defend doctors and the general population from plague, this was possible only because it both stopped germs from entering the human body and transformed the public from a superstitious and ignorant mass into an enlightened hygienic-minded population: a population that accepted the contagious nature of the disease and corresponding, often brutal, quarantine and isolation measures.” – Christos Lynteris, ‘Plague Masks: The Visual Emergence of Anti-Epidemic Personal Protection Equipment’ (2020)

“Kiss Me Quick”, Kentish Town, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

“The mask works by concealing or modifying those signs of identity which conventionally display the actor, and by presenting new values that, again conventionally, represent the transformed person or an entirely new identity.” – Donald Pollock, ‘Masks and the Semiotics of Identity’ (1995)

“49er”, Kings Cross Station, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Wear your heart on your sleeve”, Granary Square, Kings Cross, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“A Whale of a Time”, Kentish Town, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Flower Power”, Coal Drops Yard, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Coordinated”, Kentish Town, August 2020.
“A Grand Day Out”, Coal Drops Yard, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Swift”, Kentish Town, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Morning”, Bloomsbury, Jul 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Back to Work”, Kentish Town, July 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

The New Abnormal

“Who is that masked man?”, Camden Town, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

We live in a changed world, though we may have hardly moved all year. Our work, our leisure time, our homes and our streets have all been changed by the experience of COVID-19. Some changes are positive – lockdown led me to start getting milk delivered, for example, reducing waste and excess packaging. Although I sometimes miss the supermarket, deliveries have become a fact of life.

“Delivery”, Camden, April 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“To your door”, Camden, July 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

Other changes – particularly the changes to the built environment – have been sources of tension. The sight of signs in the street warning of disease (while mandating social distancing) are not something any of us is used to, and changes to pavement and public spaces are shifting patterns of behaviour. One-way systems are sources of confusion and tension – and occasional conflict.

“Stay 2m Apart”, Euston, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“But WHY can’t I go that way?”, Kings Cross Station, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Arrivals”, Kings Cross Station, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Who is that?”, Kings Cross Station, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Walk this way”, Kings Cross Station, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Waiting for the train”, Kings Cross Station, August 2020.

The thing that I hope people remember is that those managing these new systems are themselves finding their way. People walking masked through the city may not be aware that their appearance is challenging. Although there may be an occasional sharp intake of breath, we do not need to panic. We need to be kind, and smile above our masks, and offer others a way past if we don’t want to get in each other’s way.

“Sheila”, Kentish Town, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

We are all finding our way, and we do not yet even know the destination. It may be that the “old normal” will return shortly with a vaccine. But it may be – and it is probably more likely – that we have to be careful and mindful of our space for a long while yet.

Feature: Conspiracy

“Rapture”, Camden Town, May 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

“…foundering halfway between the abyss and the peak, they drifted rather than lived, given up to aimless days and sterile memories, wandering shadows who could only have found strength by resigning themselves to taking root in the soil of their distress.”

“Some predictions were based on bizarre calculations involving the number of the year, the number of deaths and the number of months already spent under the plague. Others established comparisons with the great plagues of history, bringing out the similarities (which these prophecies called ‘constants’) and, by means of no less peculiar calculations, claimed to extract information relative to the present outbreak. But the ones that the public liked best were undoubtedly those which, in apocalyptic language, announced a series of events, any one of which might be the one that the town was currently enduring, their complexity allowing for any interpretation.”

Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)

“Parasites”, Camden, April 2020.
“Our Amazing NHS”, Regent’s Park, July 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“COVID 1984”, Kings Cross, August 2020.
“Orwell Approves”, Camden Town, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“What They’re Not Telling You”, Kentish Town, May 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

Feature: Masked

“Camouflage”, Camden Town, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

Of all the features of everyday life affected by COVID-19, none has been more contentious than the wearing of face-masks. Although a recent study by King’s College London (‘Becoming “Covid-Secure”‘) suggests that mask-wearing is becoming more normal and more accepted, there is still a significant proportion of people who are either unconvinced or simply unwilling to comply.

Mainly (though not exclusively) on the right of politics, the central objection seems to be an imagined surrender to the will of the state. The collection of cranks and conspiracists styling themselves “Lockdown Sceptics” have devoted a lot of time to the issue, including a particularly reprehensible retooling of Boris Johnson’s dehumanising and offensive arguments against the burka. Despite the evidence that shows masks are effective in preventing transmission, they insist on a misreading of John Stuart Mill, arguing that “you should be able to do what you want provided you do no harm to others” as though that were justification for not engaging in an action primarily intended to protect others. There also seems to be little thought about how this refusal to actually apply their own principle has resulted in the government being forced to impose sanctions when public consent is the desirable outcome.

Being masked is a powerful statement. The invisibility of smiles and the traditional association with anonymity make interaction different. One of the defining images from the peak in April was of medical staff in PPE, their names taped to their fronts. As lockdown eased, I caught myself flinching as I saw three masked men advancing in formation near Kings Cross. They were taxi drivers, in search of coffee, but the mask makes it harder to know what the eyes are saying.

As masks have become more common, however, I’ve noticed more and more people using their masks to show who they are. Slogans, football teams, animals: there are so many ways to turn the mask into another site of expression, another celebration of our diversity. And sometimes the mask actually highlights the eyes, whether they are curious, tired or thoughtful – or at other moments, filled with mischief and humour.

Perhaps in time we will value the new care that has to be spent performing human interaction with only our words and eyes. Perhaps in time we will come to recognise our common humanity more easily, because now we must look more carefully. Perhaps, whatever the distance between us, physical distancing can bring us closer socially. If only we know to look.

“Keep Smiling”, Kentish Town, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth
“Power”, Kentish Town, July 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Come on You Spurs!”, Camden, July 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Straight Outta Lockdown”: Kentish Town, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth
“Cats”, Kentish Town, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“My auntie made it.” Bloomsbury, July 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Flower show”, Kentish Town, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth
“Eye contact”, Kentish Town, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

A trip to the pharmacy, 31 March 2020

31 March 2020 (17:30): I went to get my prescription earlier. Bizarre and stressful. So many people wearing masks and a leaden hush even on Camden High Street. People casting suspicious glances at each other and mostly attempting to make space.

Or, as in the case of these two men, pushing past obstacles. I hope the policeman and the woman are ok, for all their sakes. I crossed the road instead.

A long queue outside Lidl blocks one side of the pavement, shoppers hugging the walls as far as they can. More masks and tension: this city isn’t designed to allow people to spread out. More people outside Poundland: people who don’t have electronic money. They use the cash they earn., which has to be spent in person. Mothers with children they can’t leave safely at home.

Finally I get to the pharmacy and take my place in my first socially-distanced queue. I take out my phone to record the experience and the man in front of me turns to see who’s behind him. He grins behind the mask.

I check behind me and move a pace back to get the person behind me to move. I was already at social distance from the person in front but I can’t think of another way to get them to move without a conversation at close quarters.

Purchases complete, the journey home is a bit less stressful but it’s hard to find a route. People appear from inside buildings and around corners, meaning the calculation is constant: and the road is still busy, limiting the space to move. People in this city just can’t put the distance they need between themselves and others.