As this picture I took and Tweeted on Wednesday has attracted some local press attention and a lively debate online, I thought I'd post it here and say what I think in more than 140 words. It's in the window of a tattoo shop, New Romantic Ink, 20 yards from my flat.
On Twitter, I called it racist, discriminatory and just plain dumb. Dumb's easy: although reading and speaking skills don't always go together (I can read Latin and Welsh but can't speak them to any standard), it seems unlikely that anyone who can't speak English will be able to read the sign, so it's a little self-defeating.
Discriminatory? Yes: most of the world's population is excluded from this shop. Racist? I think it is. The owners of the shop and their friends contacted me on Twitter to accuse me of lacking the 'bollocks' to come in and talk about it, but they also explained to me and the local paper that an Iranian customer who spoke no English had issued death threats (despite not speaking English?) over a disagreement, and that forms need to be completed by customers. The man was arrested, which seems perfectly fair to me.
I do think the sign is racist though. Apart from the hostile phrasing ('don't even bother'), the owners have responded to one awful and frightening event by making a link between linguistic ability and behaviour. It feels to me like the the inability to speak English is a coded way of excluding foreigners, and the exclusion of all non-English speakers because one person behaved appallingly clearly roots that behaviour in cultural/racial/linguistic difference without regard for personal responsibility or the enormous variation in human behaviours. It implies, too, that English-speakers can behave however they like in the shop – and as we all know, people with BNP and EDL tattoos are charming gentlemen one and all.
I hope the customer who threatened the staff at New Romantic Ink is subjected to the full force of the law. But I hope too that the shop's staff learn to differentiate between one arsehole and the many billions of people whose custom they've turned down. It reminded me far too much of the famous 'No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish' signs formerly displayed in British shops and boarding houses.
I'm pretty certain, too, that a tattoo shop owner would object to a ban on people with tattoos in other places.
PS. Reading the newspaper article, I wonder how much my friend Paul Uppal had to grit his teeth before agreeing with me!
Update: I had a conversation with the owners on BBC Radio the other day. It was all very cordial and thoughtful, though I (and the presenter) wasn't entirely convinced that the sign going up minutes after an altercation with a threatening Iranian customer was entirely coincidental.
The sign has now been replaced with this one, which made me laugh quite a lot. Genuinely funny.