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...