I spent last Saturday evening walking around the York suburb in which I grew up, and noting the changes that have occurred in 20 years, the most obvious of which is the increase in the amount of street furniture.
There's a certain kind of railway modeller who not only has the track and the engines and the little figures waiting on the platform (a businessman with a paper under his arm, a mother with child and a old man with a dog are accepted shorthand for the commuting masses) but also the finest incidentals of urban topography, such as park benches, road signs and traffic bollards. The same sort of completism is now evident across south-west York.
There are bollards on the edges of grass verges to keep the cars off the footpaths, or people off the roads, and each of these bollards is finished off with three little reflectors. Traffic humps and mini-roundabouts are everywhere, indicated by numerous road signs. In fact, there are so many signs that you expect to see warnings not only announcing that mini-roundabouts are coming up, but also signs referring to them retrospectively, proclaiming: "That WAS a mini-roundabout!"
In the parks, there are twice as many bins as there used to be, but half of them turn out to be for dog waste. The woods in one park have now been labelled "Tree Trail", presumably because someone was given a sign to write on, and discerned that he'd look a fool if he put "Trees". Also, every little short cut, snicket or back way is now formalised and indicated by a blue sign, pointing out that this leads to Dringhouses or to Foxwood. I can't help thinking that knowledge of these routes should be passed on by word of mouth, like Aboriginal songlines.
Where all this comes from, I don't know. It's the opposite of farming, but I see in most cities and towns a modern desire to cover ground, superseding the earlier one to clear it and plant things. Or perhaps writing and putting up signs is addictive, and once you've done the essential "Give Way" and so on, you've got to keep going until you get to "Field Where Brambles Grow" or "Pete's Route To The Shops".
Even the coppers in York are at it. The enemy of my braver and wilder contemporaries was the police van called Black Maria, a stealthy Ford Transit that was the colour of the night itself. Its modern-day equivalent is a blaring, multicoloured thing, bristling with loudspeakers, video cameras and with numerous mission statements about "the community" painted on the side.
Maybe there's some new national trend towards explication, but in that case, why don't computers come with instructions any more? I am told that many purchasers of my particular model have to call helplines to find out how to turn it on.