Opinion: Wood is good

Luke Haines

Luke Haines

14 August 2015

Because I'm a maverick who plays by his own rules – the Clint Eastwood of the bar management fraternity – I took the hour I had off the other day and used it to read a book.

Like I say, I'm a loose cannon.

In the course of my reading, I came across a true story anecdote of a man who, on a tour of a nuclear power plant, set off radiation detectors on his way into the plant. This presented an awkward situation for the plant, as they then had to figure out why the gentleman in question was radioactive, and prove to everyone's satisfaction that it was nothing to do with them or their safety measures.

It transpired that the man had spent the preceding evening dismantling an old World War II era aircraft altimeter, and had unwittingly covered himself in radium paint.

I thought this was a fairly interesting story for about four seconds, before I remembered that the bar I work in has an aircraft-themed decor and that there was an old, World War II era oxygen meter above the till.

Retrieving it, gingerly, I made my way to a shop across the road from the bar that designs glass murals, mirrors and the like. 'Weird question,' I said to the couple that run the shop, 'but do you guys have a black light?'

A quick bit of Googling had informed me that radium paint is mixed with phosphorous materials that can degrade fairly quickly and therefore no longer glow. However, radium itself will still glow under a black light. It also has a half life of 1,600 years, meaning that if the dial in the bar was radioactive, it would still only be half as dangerous as its current level in the year 3600. By which time we'd presumably be closed.

My friend at the glass shop didn't have a black light to hand, but he did have a UV lamp, which I thought might have a similar effect. Plugging the lamp in, I put the oxygen meter into the purple light to see if the paint on the dial glowed.

Glowed? I could have gone back and read the rest of my book by it.

So, I thanked the glass shop and headed back to work, wondering where exactly I could stash radioactive waste in a bar. I emailed a government health and safety department to see if I was over-reacting, about to gain super powers, or unlikely to live long enough to read their reply. They helpfully sent back a standardised 'thank you for your enquiry' type e-mail, and promised to send me a more specific response within 18 working days, or 'enough time that the bar flies will have probably formed the new X-Men'.

At time of writing, the probably-radioactive and definitely-not-properly-sealed-anymore oxygen meter is back on the high shelf it normally lives on. I'm watching the taller staff intently for signs of hair loss.

This is, incidentally, the second time that quirky bar design has nearly killed me. The other was in a now-mercifully-closed establishment whose designer had suffered from – or perhaps thoroughly enjoyed – what can best be called a lead fetish.

The doors were made of lead. The bathroom was decorated with lead. Crucially, the bar – which as any bartender will tell you is prone to dings and knocks and gouges with fruit knives and all manner of surface-breaking damage – was topped with lead. Ever drop a piece of fruit on a bartop and then stick it straight back into a drink because you're in a hurry and nobody is looking? Yeah, me too. I've certainly done it with my own drinks. I'm willing to bet that not many people have done it with a bar made of heavy metals, though.

It wasn't until years after I stopped working at that bar that my brain caught up with me and I checked the symptoms of lead poisoning. According to the always-reliable Wikipedia [citation needed], there is no safe amount of lead to have in an environment. If it's there, it's poisoning you, a little. Symptoms of exposure include poor sleep quality, depression, and irritability.

All of which I had, although they're also symptoms of working in a bar, so maybe I'm being a hypochondriac.

Still, as I sit here, a radioactive-paint-filled oxygen meter perched above me like Poe's raven, I can't help but feel that if I had one message for the bar designers of the world, it's this: stop being quirky, build things out of wood, and maybe keep a Geiger counter handy for those unexpected junk shop bargains.

Related articles

Spirits & Cocktails

Robert Wood's 18/81 to shake up the Birmingham cocktail scene

There’s an air of mystery surrounding the latest cocktail bar from Robert Wood. Named 18/81, its exact address is undisclosed.

Wine

Pay less, drink better: Wines that taste twice as good as their price tag

It’s harder than ever to find wines that really deliver.

Wine

English winemakers expect a good harvest

The good weather at the end of September combined with a warm and sunny June means English winemakers are currently predicting a good harvest this yea