Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Toilet Tapes

The lavatory has always figured strongly in the English humour; although I often wish to disown the heritage of Benny Hill, his comedy offers proof of this scatological obsession. My readers then must forgive the following temporary descent from the intellectual heights of the quantum theory as I mull over the revelations stemming from the Idaho senator's misadventures.

When I recently returned home from my gruelling evening class I flipped on the TV with a view to catch up on the latest Bravo reality show, only to find the instrument unaccountably tuned to some cable news channel. Dulcie again. By some synchronicity, I was just in time to listen to the tape made subsequent to the senator's arrest. Call me prurient, call me voyeuristic, but it was riveting stuff and I remained transfixed as the sordid details unfolded. It summoned up some long dormant memories of my youth on the London Underground and the legend that used to surround those dank subterranean caverns of public toilets in places like Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. I must hasten to emphasize that, lest I be misunderstood, and there are perhaps those that will remain unconvinced, my interest was not piqued by the senator's particular peccadilloes, but by the fact that the stage upon which the action occurred was the humble public restroom: that unsung, overlooked but essential component of our daily existence.

Literature rarely intrudes into the personal hygiene of its characters; we all I suppose take it for granted that it happens. The needs of people trapped in elevators or mine shafts for days are never discussed in the aftermath. A great silence surrounds the whole business thus tending to create a sense of isolation. I for one; and surely I am not alone, and I know I am not after a startling revelation from a colleague at Amoco; approach the ritual of the institutional restroom with great seriousness; it is not something that can be taken lightly, as one might say take throwing out the rubbish (or marking papers). If a market existed for a guidebook to public lavatories I would gladly write it, because I always evaluate the restroom facilities when visiting somewhere.

A contributing factor to the activities described on the tape must surely be the open plan nature of the typical U.S. public facility. I was filled with misgiving when I first encountered the saloon door quality of the dividers and the spacious cracks between the panels, because I was used to the tomb-like privacy of the English privy. It can be very unnerving to look up and find the head of a seven footer gazing serenely above the stall's divider. Over the years I have come to terms with the utilitarian divider that dominates the U.S. public lavatorial landscape, where personal feelings and privacy are sacrificed to the altar of cost and efficiency. Now this.

Of course you can distinguish the English character from the French by their very different approaches to the public restroom. For nowhere in England would one find examples that liberally sprinkle the towns of southern France, where the restroom occupies pride and place in the main thoroughfare, and lower limbs and heads are plainly visible to all, and conversations are carried on as if it were over a cup of tea.

Memorable restrooms include those at the Royal Society and Wallace Collection both in London. The former is elegantly constructed from fine wood and provides an almost sound-proof tomb; the door closes with a confident thud, entirely separating the occupant from the rest of the world. Of course, someone dying within may not be discovered for several years. The latter takes a much more cosy approach, there is plentiful use of coloured tiles, a little chair nicely upholstered; it has more the character of a discrete reading room than a lav. Equally memorable, though a savage contrast in style, was the first ecological lav I encountered in New Hampshire. Beneath the seat lay a pit of untold depth, containing God only knows what, causing one to grip the car keys with more than the usual firmness; it was a terrifying sight. Nonetheless, one could derive pleasure from the fact that it was all in a good cause. Green-ness being a very modern thing these days, I sense a growth in interest in the Eco-crapper.

There, I have got it off my chest. We can move on to more cerebral things such as the price of butter...


Snipper "Book Zeller" said...

I will say that in my course of reading this I have not only managed to get coffee on myself and the desk area due to my uncontrolable laughter but also gained several reproachful looks from verious other students and library monitors.

I can SAFETLY say I have not laughed this hard in quite some time and that is after a summer of comedies and comedians.

Brenton said...

I don't even know what to say except wow.

You really did capture the essence of french restrooms though. They are a bit of a shock.

shirazgirl said...

First of all, in all due respect, I ask that you not blaspheme the late Benny Hill. How else would a girl have learned about nursing and frilly panties?

Moving along...There was an article in the NYT by Laura MacDonald insisting that men who consent to illict public bathroom romps should not be punished so as to avoid ruining their otherwise upstanding lives. Seriously? Essentially, sexual actions that take place between two consenting adults in a public restroom should be considered lawful and socially exceptable. Ms. MacDonald continues on to claim that Craig was a victim of entrapment and should not be punished simply for soliciting a police officer know the story.

Aylwin Forbes said...

I actually thought Benny Hill was funny decades ago, but he drifted towards the lowest common denominator with the comedy.

There was an editorial in the Tribune this morning condemning the apologists for Craig's potty pranks. I'm thinking that if Craig had been a schoolteacher or, worse, a member of the clergy, the vitriol would not have been directed against the defenders of safety in public bathrooms, but against the institutions of the church and the moral deprivation and hypocrisy of teachers and priests. "Save our kids from these predators" etc...

My view on the matter: if said bathrooms were completely private and out of earshot and view of innocent bystanders, and that all arrangments for a tryst had been arranged prior, and that all parties (how many can you fit in a stall? in Prick Up Your Ears, which "celebrates" the life of the late Joe Orton, it seems like there were dozens) have consented, then by all means have at it. But in the rush to protect the "rights" of these perverts a couple of things are overlooked: as per my description, these lavs are not private, they are indeed very public, so any action goes on as a very public spectacle. Would these liberated intellectual thinkers be quite so quick to defend the likes of Craig if their children had perhaps been witnesses or, worse, potential "victims?" Though of course the victim here is apparently poor old Craig. I would have one femtoiota more compassion for him if he "manned up" (perhaps poor choice of gender here) and came clean.

Aylwin Forbes said...


I'm glad, and a little relieved, that you have progressed to follow your studies at some real university, even if it resides in a corn field. All the better for a contemplative life. No longer will my packages arrive with a whimsical quip.