I'm not alone in my curious fascination for the humble loo. Or toilette, as the French say (so much more elegant). I've Googled book titles containing the words 'loo' or 'toilet' and several popped up: 'Ladies and Gents:Public Toilets and Gender.' 'Toilets:Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing.' 'Toilets of the World'. Just three examples.
My fascination for the lowly privy began during the fifties and sixties, possibly with my daylight visits to the small outhouse (complete with tiny peep hole in the door – probably heart shaped) in the woods behind the gorgeous Suffolk Tudor cottage often rented from family friends during the holidays. The cottage did boast a modern loo inside (as sophisticated as a 1960s loo could be in a Tudor cottage), but whenever the call of nature visited me during the day, I would choose to use the privy. Possibly because it was quirky, and I love a bit of quirk. Much more fun than the boring sophisticated loo in the house. The parents were bemused – they were used to me. Older brother thought me stupid. He was probably right.
Also during the sixties the family often camped in France. I was fascinated again – this time by the wraparound pissoirs of decorated metal. I remember standing in the footprints moulded into the concrete floor, then hopping backwards, as instructed, to prevent the flush swamping my feet (ahh... memories). I've encountered loos of various design and function since then, and have remained pottily curious about them all.
One of the more recent ones was in Surrey, UK, where I encountered the type straight out of Space Odyssey – a space capsule. It looks like a mini rocket with a button on the outside and a green or red light informing you whether or not it's occupied. You press that button and the door silently slides open. Inside, everything's hidden under overhanding bits of wall. Soap under here, water under here, dryer under here. The thing is, although there is a door button on the interior after the biz, the door will equally silently slide open after a certain length of time on the off-chance that the occupant might have fainted or had a heart attack, so there is the slight concern that the door might slide open while you're still occupied! No fears, though – I escaped!
My fascination for loos evolved, as did my historical knowledge of the smallest – or largest in some cases - room.
Thomas Crapper. Now there's an appropriate name if ever there was one (his name came first, incidentally). He didn't invent the flush system, as many thought, but he did popularise the use of the loo and introduced some related inventions, such as the ballcock. (Ballcock. Lovely name. Miranda (Hart) would love it). Mr.Crapper was known for the quality of his work and received several royal warrants for fitting the plumbing and fine cedarwood loo seats in Sandringham, one of Queen Victoria's pads, during the 1880s.
Another name associated with le toilette (la toilette?) is Lady Lucinda Lambton, a British aristocratic broadcaster and author of books on the architectural history of 'the throne.' Supremely eccentric, she's a woman after my own heart. Apart from showing us beautiful and unusual throne rooms, she might also have taught me about the Roman habit of communing in loos and uttering: 'Pass the sponge, please.'
In 1860 the first water closet, imported from England, was installed in Queen Victoria's rooms in castle Ehrenburg, in Germany, and she was the only one allowed to use it. Oh, I do love the idea of historical hupper classes doing what comes naturally. When visiting porsh National Trust 'arses Husband and I find it more fun and interesting to poke noses inside the bathrooms and water closets than the ornate, gilt and velvet draped dining rooms and parlours. A year or two ago we visited Chawton house, Jane Austen's pad just up the road, and we were more fascinated by her water closet secreted behind a small door in her bedroom than we were in her needleworks and writings.
'Just think – ' I observed to Husband, '– Jane Austen's DNA's on that!' (I failed English Lit O'level after forcing myself to read Pride and Prejudice three times and hating it more each time. Just thought you'd like to know...).
A toilet anecdote appertaining to a more modern writer is the fact that Agatha Christie took a personal toilet seat on her travels because she hated using public loos. Maybe I should do the same when I encounter loos with low granny points.
History is flushed with toilet japes.
During the war, regimental lads placed small exploding devices inside latrines (there's another name) and set them off when their mates did their biz, resulting in soldiers hopping painfully about with flaming red cheeks, accompanied by the hollering laughter of their comrades. Itching powder was often shaken onto their loo paper, too. Not to forget the japes of first-year senior schoolboys whose heads were held down the loo by the older ones while the thing was flushed.
The various names for the loo are many. Thunderbox (thunderbox?! Never heard that one before...). Little girl/boys' room. Smallest room. Bog. Throne room. Lav. WC. Comfort station. John. Bogger and brasco (Aussie). Doubtless there are many more, but what about the naming of this most delicate of matters? Powdering one's nose. Spending a penny. Pointing percy at the porcelain. There are many more, but they're mostly far too indelicate terms for the shell-like sensibilities of many of us.
The last time I wrote about loos under a similar title was some years ago. Loos have moved on since then.
What prompted this particular reflection was a visit to the loos at Winchester Guildhall, UK. The loo was covered with a transparent lid with a latch on the front. 'Huh?' All the loos were thus presented. The word 'Airflushed' was printed on the latch. I unclicked the lid, raised it, performed the necessary, then read the instructions on the wall above the cistern (one rarely reads instructions, but in this case I felt the matter warranted it). 'Replace the lid.' it stated. 'Ensure it is clicked into place, then press the button as usual.' Okey-dokey. I pressed the button and watched. A brief, sharp half a nano second's loud suck and the bowl was empty. Impressive. I rushed back to Husband and informed him of my discovery. The question was whether the water saved was worth the energy required to do the thing. Nevertheless, this latest loo performance had to be written down. I've never seen a loo like this since.
And now, granny points. Whenever we took Husband's mum out and about, she'd tell us how many granny points a public loo had earned. We've got into that habit. 'How many granny points?' We demand of each other, after a visit, plus asking what ad was on the back of your loo door in service stations, known as in-toilet advertising (just looked it up. Apparently this form of advertising works). A medical question, or an ad about online adult education. The gents' are invariably pretty naff, whereas we ladies can often expect, occasionally in restaurants or pubs, spotlessly clean and the gentle aroma of a bowl of pot pourri on a shelf and a lovely squirter bottle of soap for the hands. Nice and quiet, even when the hand blower roars. Great granny points – at least eleven out of ten.
Granny would be pleased.