Tic-tac Teddy Bears and Teardrop Tattoos by Justin Scroggie

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Tic-tac Teddy Bears and Teardrop Tattoos by Justin Scroggie

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Category: Trivia
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Four stars – code for a good book that has a few awkward elements but on the whole provides a very good and authoritative look at a world of hidden messages and coded communications.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 978-0340976487

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Signs are everywhere. I wasn't really one of those who thought our roads were littered with too many traffic signs until the day I was driven past a pair of speed regulation signs, positioned at the exit end of a one-way street but facing the illegal way up it. Not all signs, of course, are quite as unnecessary, or indeed as blatantly visible, which is where this pictorial guide to countless coded messages, signifiers and other similar factoids comes in.

I take great issue about it being subtitled 'a miscellany of the signs and symbols you see every day' – I know Leicester's a bit rough these days but I've never knowingly seen someone with a teardrop tattoo, which means the wearer's killed someone, in prison code. The other titular signs are the non-verbal communication used to get odds passed from one end of a race-course grandstand to the other, and a style of homosexual self-advertising.

There are countless more here, and they include the things we are not supposed to see as signs. If Washington DC was laid out to include Masonic symbols the architect was exceedingly clever, for some of the necessary landmarks would not be built for generations. It probably goes down to circumstance, and is not a plug for his beliefs at all. Bring on the KKK, neo-Nazis and so on, and signs are seen by the suspicious outsider everywhere there aren't any. (The introduction is guilty of this – pretending tic-tac is a code the layman is not supposed to be privy to – it's visual, down to the noise trackside, obviously.)

Some signs can get you in trouble – and I don't just mean the wrong colours (sorry, colors) in the wrong gang area of LA. Some signs can easily be misread by the ignorant. Madonna's Kabbalistic bit of red string might mean to some others she was out in support of anorexia sufferers, or was one herself. I'm guilty here – I and I think everyone I know thought the yellow baby on board sticker in so many car rear windows these days thought it meant ‘smug parent on board who thinks he could change other people's dangerous driving habits' – it really means if I crash this car, Mister fire officer, please keep on cutting – there might be a small person to dig out the wreck.

Some signs are just leftovers from systems where nothing better was available – there is a whole book on 'how to read a church' detailing the copious ways in which the religious instruction was passed on down to the illiterate. So much of the modern wedding ceremony has a link to a traditional message. Other signs are a lot more modern – the CD looking odd dangling from a rear-view mirror might actually be the Koran on CD-ROM.

There is a long history of signs and the signified, therefore, and I think this book could have been a fair bit better given some extra editorialising about it. Our author includes several Victorian message systems, from the language of giving flowers, to the language of flapping one's fan at a beau, which he admits might just be a jumbled falsehood passed on from times of old. He doesn't say the same about the back-pocket homosexual hankie, however, but takes that on as gospel.

So there were several cases where I wanted the history of what we were being told. Just who codified the military statue – the horse rearing off both front legs means the subject died in the battle commemorated, and so on? I wanted some proof of it all archived – the scratchings roaming gypsy thieves allegedly left in your gate post regarding the chances of his subsequent followers having a successful rob, and so on.

Beyond a couple of trust issues, the book is authoritative, and very well put together. There is a nice spread of pictures, which serve to properly illustrate, rather than pad the book out. It might seem set up a little awkwardly at first – it gambols from subject to subject, and so often finds itself returning to certain code-users (spies, neo-Nazis, freemasons, etc). Shibboleths come up three times at least, having been used in different circumstances.

It is, like all such trivia books, not one to read in one piece, but I did enjoy a thorough plough for the purposes of this review. It struck me as a very competently put together guide to something I think certainly deserves a volume to itself. It beats several other entries of publishers' non-fiction lists at this time of year, and surpasses the monicker of gift book. It certainly is thought provoking – I thought it had too much obscure Morse code in it, until it reminded me Nokia uses it for its alerts to this day.

As a result I can't make a secret of my recommendation of this book. It's the best of its type, but it is still flawed. My own thinly-veiled secret is the fact that two of the code systems I have mentioned above are well documented, but are not in the book at all. If it had included all I said above is missing this book could easily have got four and a half stars, if not more. I still would like everyone to read it - to find out what I included and the author didn't, if for nothing else.

We thank Hodder and Stoughton for sending us a review copy.

Books of trivia abound at this time of year. We've also enjoyed and can recommend History Without the Boring Bits by Ian Crofton.

Booklists.jpg Tic-tac Teddy Bears and Teardrop Tattoos by Justin Scroggie is in the Top Ten Books About Language.

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