The Semiotics of Lockdown Signage

This blog’s title is grander than this blog could possibly be. As a blogger, my linguist’s hat is being worn slightly askew as I write this – I’m sparing you, dear reader, a heady mix of semiotics and multimodal analysis that a more academically competitive linguist might offer. This is just a small sharing of the signage I’ve noticed in recent weeks as David and I have covered every corner and every walking path in Ely, usually with shopping bags in tow in order to distinguish the outing from our daily exercise outing of running/jogging.

While many of us are communicating with the world outside our homes via social media, Zoom, Skype and phone calls, others have taken to their window panes. The rainbow campaign to involve children in a productive and positive way during their confinement at home has grown into an art from for some and a means of protest for others of all ages.

This one is more specific than most, referring to our local hospital, Addenbrookes. The images of stethoscopes and plasters etc are emoji-like.


Sticking with a rainbow palette, the heart symbol, perhaps overused in our culture, sends the message.

Saying thank you to strangers who are not present in front of us is an interesting act in itself. But that is essentially what we’re doing. The intended recipient – the NHS worker – is likely not to see the sign, ever. The intended audience then are the passers-by, our neighbours, our fellow town residents – who else could it possibly be given the restrictions of the lockdown? Despite the limited audience in this public discourse, at least with window panes, one is less likely to be trolled by a stranger or feel obliged to answer or click ‘like’ to any comments.


The use of semiotic resources of colour and shape along with recognisable texts of our times, phrased as imperatives (stay safe, stay at home etc.), communicate emotions more than orders.  On some streets, the rows of townhouses with children’s rainbows create a wallpaper effect, turning houses inside out.

This window presents a mini-narrative, suggesting before (grey clouds and letters) and after (rainbow colours).
The text is not just a thank you, but a socio-political protest cheekily written in the rainbow colours.

I feel I have to say something about the signage of businesses around our little town. Most are the rather prosaic black ink on white paper, usually type print, occasionally handwritten, saying simply ‘Coronavirus – Closed until further notice.’ One of our local pubs  added political commentary, well wishes and indirect advertising into the mix:


I close, as these walks often do, with a trip to the supermarket and the signage on the ground of the carparks. These signs that have forced our behaviours to change will likely be one of the more poignant memories I’ll have when I look back on this time.


Stay safe, everyone.


Corona Writing Corona

One of the downsides of being a writer at the moment comes from receiving emails for writers. Since the Covid-19 lockdown, literary magazines, writers’ competitions and writers’ organisations have taken it upon themselves to provide a service by coaxing us into writing during the lockdown.  Whether it’s corona-themed issues, creative writing competitions for our suddenly increased output or sharing our dryly humorous lockdown stories, we writers should all be writing right now.

This unearths several problems.

First of all, lockdown does not equal free time. My academic and professional writing life, which involves mostly confinement with my laptop, has not changed at all. Student assignments are still coming in and writing deadlines are still looming. My non-work time has been filled, in addition to the usual jogging/walking, news and fiction reading and language studying, with Zoom calls to friends and colleagues and with standing in long queues outside of supermarkets. Finding the time for creative writing involves breaking some laws of physics.

Second, thinking is a big part of creative writing. The thinking part of my brain (I believe my brain also emotes and reacts without thinking) has been rather pre-occupied. If I were to etch out some time, probably from the one-subject-only newspaper reading, my thought space would be filled with the enormity of this all. Sometimes my head wheels are turning over the different approaches to the spread of the virus across different countries, and I suspect Britain is not doing the right thing, but I don’t know what the right thing is. Other times, my thoughts are wallowing in the sadness of what is happening, the loss of so many lives and the stories of some of those lives. I do express these thoughts, as I am now, but mostly in my journal, where I have the privacy to convey ideas in their raw form without having to find the bon mot.

This brings me to the third problem. You can’t turn creativity off and on like a tap. I find that my fountain of creativity is not only unpredictable at the best of times, but runs dry when I’m sad about something (which is different from being inexplicably depressed, where writing can be therapeutic – another time, another blog). I admire the war poets who could compose the most beautiful verses in the face of such fear and sorrow. Does the sadness I’m experiencing need to be explained or explored? We’re all experiencing it. When I experience it, I recoil from creative writing. In recent weeks, I’ve spoken to other writers about this and I know I’m not alone.

Fourth, other writers, mainly journalist, are writing about the virus. Whether it’s reportage on the science, analysis of what governments are doing or not doing, or those who tell us how the lockdown is affecting our lives, there are plenty of writers kept in work by Covid-19. I ask myself, what could I possibly add to the public discourse on this virus that hasn’t already been said? The real challenge for writers – journalists, non-fiction and fiction writers – is to not write about Covid-19 and get published.

That brings me to a solution to these problems, at least for now.  As an avid diarist, I’ve been writing most days in my journals. Only the subject matter has changed to the topic of the day – as it’s stuck in my head – details of the ways our town has changed, the joys of more birdlife around us and feelings about my existence/mortality and that of those around me (spiritually if not physically these days). Someday, as with a lot of my journal writing, these thoughts will find their way to a public readership, but in some other form – a story, a novel, an essay. Something will be created out of these recorded memories, but with the assistance of hindsight and reflection.


It’s Killing Her

There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about pandemics and epidemics. Let’s consider another epidemic. To quote historian Rebecca Solnit, ‘Violence against women is an epidemic that takes four lives a day in the USA and leaves millions living in terror or facing the torture of rape, beatings, stalkings, and abuse.’  According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK, 80 women were killed by a current or ex-partner in the past year – that’s a 27% increase on the previous year.

You’re welcomed to say that the Coronavirus (Covid-19) is a whole different thing altogether.  After all, the Coronavirus is a biological contagion with no known vaccine. Violence against women is a cultural contagion for which there are blindingly obvious cures.

There is another difference which struck me this week. Like many people around the world, I’ve been following the story of the British couple, the Abels, who were ‘quarantined’ on the Diamond Princess and then caught the virus. Before this incident, the Abels were strangers to me. But now, thanks to the Coronavirus, I know them by name – Sally and David Abel.

Aside from a few women celebrities, I cannot think of the name of one woman, previously unknown to me, who has been the victim of violence perpetrated by a man. On occasion these stories appear in the news, especially if a legal case is involved, but not for long before they fade away. Perhaps, it isn’t just the reporting, but the sheer numbers – to quote Stalin, ‘one death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.’

I recently read Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, a revisionist’s history of the well-known killings. On the premise that there’s been vast interest over the decades in identifying the ripper, and there’s been little about his victims. Furthermore, what has been said about these women is by and large inaccurate. For example, they were not all prostitutes. Only one of the five women was a prostitute when she was killed and another had been a prostitute briefly in her past. A point also worth mentioning is that, contrary to popular lore, none of these women had been raped by their killer. Based on police records, Rubenhold concludes that these women were all killed in their sleep and only one of them in her own bed – the others were sleeping rough on the streets of Victorian London. I leave it to you, dear reader, to extrapolate the levels of misogyny going on there.Femicide 2

Since I started with Rebecca Solnit, I’ll conclude with her as well: ‘Even those of us who are not direct victims are impacted by living in a world where such gender violence is both common and normalized or trivialized, where any woman may be harmed because she is a woman.’