Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Glass Doors

Last month in Birmingham, England I attended a reading by the extraordinary novelist Will Self.  A bit early, I decided to drop into a café for a quick coffee.  Although I know Birmingham city centre quite well, I don’t know a single independent café.  Like independent bookstores, they’ve all gone to the wall. So, it had to be a Starbucks lookalike, Café Nero I think – couches, forgettable music, customers locked behind laptops.  I stood in line, ordered my espresso macchiato, then shuffled obediently sideways, waited in line again until my drink arrived then walked like I knew what I was doing to the island with the sugar and water, and having filled myself a glass I made my way towards an empty couch. Sometimes I feel like a robot, though without really knowing how robots feel.
From my seat I had a view of the door. I couldn’t resist it, and on impulse I got up and took a photograph of the door.  That’s one way of drawing attention to oneself, I must say. From behind the counter a kid darted forward, clad in uniform that included the regulation baseball cap, and asked me could he be of assistance.  Apparently taking photos of glass doors is considered aberrant behavior in controlled, risk-free environments, like Britain. And by the way, when did British waiters, or baristas, start wearing baseball caps? Does it have anything to do with Blair’s attempt to become the prime minister of the USA?

Anyway, what attracted my attention was the signs on the door.  I guess it’s an obsession of mine, though I do think it is a symptom of the nanny state that Britain has become.  It’s also an indication of the growing ugliness of public spaces.  If there is a wall, slap a warning sign on it; a glass door,  cover it with stickers that say “Glass Door”.  I once got in a train to Birmingham airport and counted seventeen safety signs in the carriage, including one that said “Please take the time to familiarize yourself with our safety signs”. After deboarding my plane in Zurich I got in a Swiss train.  The carriage had one small sign, a sticker, indicating “no smoking”. How do the Swiss manage? I would venture, they are grown up.

Well, back to the glass door.  Luckily my photo wasn’t confiscated by the pimply waiter.  As you can see, there is a sign over the door that tells you this is the exit - always helpful. Then, each glass door has a sticker prominently warning you that this is, well, glass, just in case you’re stupid.  And then, alongside each door there are big exclamation marks, warnings that these are sliding doors, just to save you from being crushed between the door and the wall, though really, if you happen to have squeezed yourself between the glass door and the wall then, as far as I’m concerned, you deserve to be crushed. Off to one side of the doors you have some gadget ot other with four signs telling you when and how  to use it and the penalty that you'll pay if you abuse it.  Maybe its my deep Irish peasantry, but such nonsense stirs the vandal in me. I remember a time when entering and exited through doors was a simple affair.

Some people will argue all these signs are simply to cover the business from being sued. Think of all the people who would otherwise be jamming themselves in between the door and the wall in an attempt to become millionaires.  But, my musing done, it was time to go.  I had warned Will Self that I was coming, but he wasn’t going to wait for me.  As I walked towards the dangerous exit, would you belief it, the doors jammed.  An electronic malfunction; a door engineer had to be called.  He arrived within a minute, in regulation uniform, including baseball cap. At last, the obnoxious doors sighed open. I was almost late for the reading. I should have sued.


  1. Nanny state requirements don't worry me; Americanisation of our societies does. I won't buy tomato sauce if the bottle has catsup on the label; I won't take a biscuit if the hostess offers me a cookie and I won't be served in a bookshop by a teenager wearing an American baseball cap.

    A waste of my time? Better than becoming angrier and angrier, and not directing it towards the proper target.

  2. Yes all these signs cover the businesses from being sued, but overall the issue is that we live in a world of complete morons! OOps, did i just say it!?

  3. And there are labels on hot drinks saying 'warning contents may be hot' and bags of peanuts that say: 'warning - may contain nuts.'

    Sometimes an emergency exit sign is helpful, if the exit isn't obvious, but you're right in general we have far too many signs everywhere.