In foreign parts, loo before you leap

When I first visited Britain many years ago, it truly was a green and pleasant land, its salubrity reflected in the plenitude of public loos.

Published: 13th October 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th October 2019 07:37 PM   |  A+A-

For representational purposes

When I first visited Britain many years ago, it truly was a green and pleasant land, its salubrity reflected in the plenitude of public loos. The natives took great pride in them, and someone had actually done a book on London’s lavatories, a sort of guide to help you mind your pees and queues in the city. I made use of a number of the places mentioned, vast Victorian edifices redolent of phenol and an aura of the sanctum sanctorum of some esoteric monastic cult where even the graffiti is executed in fine copperplate.

I recall a Christmas in Wales where we visited Langharne, the tiny village adopted by the poet Dylan Thomas. We located the cottage where he’d lived and boozed and written his poetry, and then, in the Brown Bear pub, we found old Jimmy the caretaker who, for a pint of stout, opened up the shuttered house for us, where we walked in whispers through rooms as silent as unwritten poems, and I came across the loo and used it, hearing above the tinkling arc what might have been the sough of the sea or a special sigh of approval.

When I revisited the UK some years later, sighs of relief had given way to groans of frustration. Along with much else, public loos seemed to have gone down the drain in Mrs Thatcher’s Britain.  Some had disappeared, others shut at unaccountable hours, presumably for the sake of economy.  The places that were open late, like the one at Piccadilly Circus, seemed full of furtive loiterers, apparently bent on getting an eyeful rather than jettisoning a skinful.  Those given to contemplating the rise and fall of empires might have elicited a moral from the sight of erstwhile colonialism enrapt with wan lust for once subject races which, in explicit effect, were telling it to piss off.

Extended excursions became a chancy business. You never knew when or where there wouldn’t be loo when it was most needed. On one traumatic occasion, after a play followed by a pint too many, I got caught short, as they say, on the homebound tube. Desperate that I wouldn’t be able to hold out till the end of the ride, I hopped off at the next stop, only to be informed by a cheerful Jamaican station attendant that the place had no facilities for spending a penny, or even a pound. I jumped back on the train just as the doors were closing, my obvious agitation spreading alarm among my co-passengers who probably felt I was a terrorist who’d planted a bomb on the station, or the train, or both, and now didn’t know which way to jump. Teeth and bladder clenched, I managed to make it home in the nick of time.

In France too, they’ve begun to order these things differently.  The bohemian pissoirs, which once were as much a part of the gamin charm of Paris as zinc-topped bars, bistros and artists’ garrets, have largely been replaced by high-tech chemical toiles that look like errant space modules and which, for the life of me, I can never operate.  

When you get to the States you know you’ve come a long way, baby. Like overgrown children, the Americans seem obsessed by bathrooms. The loo-to-the-White House myth of the American Dream is probably best exemplified by the apocryphal stories of Lyndon B Johnson who is said to have conducted presidential briefing sessions while ensconced on what is locally known as the “crapper”.

Fast foods, highways and TV commercials having streamrollered the country from Abilene, Tex., to Yonkers, NY, into homogenous anonymity, the “powder room” has emerged as the last frontier of individualism. The American bathroom is the flip side of the freedom of choice offered by the 33 flavours of Baskin and Robbins ice-cream, the apotheosis of the democratic right to be different.  

Exercising this inalienable franchise, Americans have devised taps that flow hot and cold at the rising and lowering of a knob, WCs that flush at the depression of a foot pedal, showers that spew seemingly through telekinesis and a whole range of ingenious doodahs that leave the visitor dumbfounded and feeling he’s met his Waterloo.

Jug Suraiya

Writer, columnist and author of several books


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