Earlier this week three men were rescued from an uninhabited island in the Micronesian archipelago, a few hundred kilometres north of Papua New Guinea. They were playing the fool in a small boat, it capsized and they swam through the warm dark night-time phosphorescent sea to the island, where you can’t tell me each of them wasn’t eyeing out the others, wondering who was going to be eaten first and maneuvering to make sure it wasn’t going to be them.
(There are, it’s indisputable, two kinds of people in the world: those who don’t spend their lives expecting that at any moment they might be involved in some calamity that will lead inexorably to deliberate acts of nutritional cannibalism, and the rest of us who think about it so often and in some minute strategic detail that we’re almost starting to look forward to it.)
Luckily for whoever of the three was slowest and juiciest, one of them had the cunning idea to spell out a cry for help on the white-sand beach, using piles of handy palm fronds. HELP, they spelt out, and this is where, had I been among them, the problem would have come in.
Once when I was in university I decided to hitchhike to Grahamstown with my friend David. We’d both met girls who were studying there, and neither of us had a car or money for a bus, so we decided to team up as a pair of sub-Kerouac Knights of the Road. We bought a litre of Oros and mixed it with a R9-99 bottle of vodka. We bought a baguette and a big salami and David had a clasp knife that would double as salami-slicer and self-defense mechanism, and we sat down to make a sign.
The sign was important. It needed to express to passing vehicles our intended destination and at the same time vouch for our reliability: after all, it was our shop window, and first impressions count. Your customer in his speeding car has only a few seconds to decide whether to stop his car and open the door to you.
We decided that “Grahamstown” shouldn’t appear on the sign. There was no space – the letters would be too small, and no one forms a good impression of a hitchhiker who makes them squint. We also reasoned that a good proportion of our target market would be workers and truckers, and “Grahamstown” with its taint as a commie-loving university town might make us seem smug, elitist and annoying. No, it would have to be PE. Anyone going to PE is so obviously a figure of pity, an icon of gritty, Fugardish authenticity that we’d surely get a lift soon.
David wanted to move onto matters of punctuation, but I wasn’t done with the wording. I argued for adding the word “please”. Politeness never hurts. Plus, if you’re a driver wary of giving a lift to potential serial killers, your fears would surely be assuaged. Cold-blooded roadside killers don’t say please and thank you.
“But what if it’s the guy in the car who’s the serial killer?” David demanded. “When he sees us saying please, won’t that make him think we’re part of the weak bourgeoisie and therefore easy prey?”
“Politeness is a sign of strength,” I argued sternly. “Only the weak feel the need to be rude.”
We went back and forth about whether saying please would make us seem desperate and thus less attractive to drivers, and whether we might create a sign saying, with playful formality, “We would greatly appreciate a lift to PE”, or whether that might read as sarcastic, and it was around then that I realised that so important a matter as sign-crafting should not be left in the hands of a couple of English students with no other skills than an ability to overthink simple things.
If I’d been on that island in the Pacific, we’d still be there, arguing about the best deployment of our palm fronds. “Help”? What kind of a message is that? Surely you’d at least add an exclamation mark? What about some additional information? “Help us, we’re trapped on this inhabited island”?
What, it’s going to take too long? You’ve got something better to do, trapped on an uninhabited island? That island was full of palm trees – it’s not like you’re running short of writing materials or beach space. Would it kill you to say “Please”? “Thank you in advance’?
I know how it would have ended for me. I’d have spent the day lugging palm fronds, chuckling under my breath and not telling the others what I was writing so that I wouldn’t spoil the surprise when they finally read: “Help! (I need somebody) Help! (Not just anybody)”.
And then they would have killed and eaten me.
The Times, 13 April 2016