Poll: Do you cross your legs to avoid using public toilets?
Figures do not add up, declared a letter to the EADT last Saturday in relation to a story that spending a penny in Long Melford public toilets costs £10 a time, writes Don Black.
But they never do add up. Any figures for tax-funded “necessaries” (or swimming pools for that matter) have never ever broken even. The penny euphemism, of course, dates from the Victorian idea of charging a valuable copper to open a cubicle.
That was steadily abolished long ago as being not worth the costs of slot mechanism and collection. It has returned, sadly, with a 30-fold rise in the impost or more in some towns (especially on west coasts) and underground in Liverpool Street station.
How awkward and worrying it is to fumble for the correct coinage at moments of greatest need! Our great country deserves better.
Proper urban lavatories have always been expensive to build and maintain, but they were vital for hygiene as well as comfort. Not so in the countryside, where primitive multi-holers were common and probably survive in remote corners of Suffolk.
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My dad, when engineer and surveyor to the then Stowmarket urban council, installed what he claimed to be the first hot water-hand-washing system in the county. That was in the 1940s and the town centre toilet block has long gone, replaced by one near a supermarket.
The council’s finance committee was perturbed. Two cost-conscious councillors had resigned over the authority spending £7,000 in 1937 for a magnificent swimming pool. What was wrong with the River Rat (a tributary of the polluted Gipping)? they asked.
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Over at Felixstowe, councillors objected to the projected pool there and suggested that the sea cost the ratepayers nothing. They faced the same financial quandary with their town seafront toilets.
The basic problem (I’m not making this up) was that women left the cubicle doors open for each other, depriving the authorities of revenue. It was exacerbated by the female custom of arriving in pairs.
Even after fine bank holidays the Felixstowe council found that meagre receipts did not even meet the cost of collection, let alone anything else. However, although the loos weren’t profitable, the councillors did recognise that they provided a public service that helped bring people to their businesses or open-air attractions.
One option in the right localities could be modest subsidies to pubs that offer adequate facilities, which we know are often used by non-customers. Goodness knows the licensed trade could do with a little more help to offset the present closure trend.
Many pubs and hotels I know have customer toilets that would be acceptable in the best London establishments. They have become even more essential with (and I’m not making this up either) the clearance of thousands of miles of hedgerows.
American service people stationed here during and after the war, notably those from Prairie regions, told me that they appreciated English hedges for an improper reason as well as for scenery and wildlife. Tourists now appreciate some of our churches for more than their treasures and history.
Stowmarket has a good example: a toilet at the tower base and others across the churchyard in the church hall. St John’s church at Felixstowe took ecumenical co-operation to a new level by connecting its outfall with that of the Catholic convent next door.
Parochialism aside, good sanitation is a matter of national honour. Britain bred the best drain brains in the world; it had to because the situation in early 19th Century London threatened another Black Death.
The Romans developed the earliest recognisable sewerage systems at Colchester and elsewhere, St Edmundsbury monks were among loo and water supply pioneers of the English age: they laid no fewer than two miles of pipes under Bury.
We somehow lost the art for a few centuries. Francois de la Rochefoucauld wrote in 1784 that Suffolk was recommended to him as having the best climate and best spoken English in Britain.
But, he added disapprovingly: “The sideboard (in a house where he stayed) is furnished with chamber pots and it is usual to relieve oneself while the others are drinking; nothing is hidden.”
That state of affairs was reversed after the French Revolution. In 1976, while travelling from Felixstowe to Saudi Arabia by way of Syria and Jordan, I found that national attitudes had been reflected in British and French mandated territories.
Jordan, previously under UK control, was good in sanitary terms. Syria, under the French, had not advanced and has certainly worsened in the ongoing civil war.
Our transport agent’s little room in Damascus, then well known to Felixstowe haulage men, was little better than the public toilets. At least he pointed a hose into it every now and again.
In the barren desert we would have appreciated some of Suffolk’s hedgerows. Reaching the shelter of dunes, however, one could have disappeared in the sand. Our destination, Tabuk airbase, was delightfully equipped to UK standards.
Back home, the priest at Orford castle keep had the most medieval privacy. On the other hand the open drop from his seat into the moat must have made it very draughty.
In 1246 a similar privy in another castle cost £100, admittedly a royal one built into a chimney for royal warmth. The sum is less equivalent to money involved in Long Melford for the convenience of visitors to that beautiful place.
Those of us lucky enough to be in the growing group of people still active in our 80s and 90s, and of course all the youngsters, would appreciate a favourable solution to this quandary.
I have to ‘hold it’
“I have suffered considerable discomfort by my resistance to public toilets. Once in my life (c1973) I have used the loo on a train; an experience I never wish to repeat. The smell, the poor quality paper; the wet floor stuck with tissues used to dry hands.
It was worse than the two footprints provided each side of a hole in the floor in an Italian department store (1970). In four transatlantic flights I have used the lavatory on one occasion and it was nothing to do with any sort of club membership. I have learned, as they say, to “hold it”. My reluctance to use facilities sat on by bottoms belonging to people I don’t know has undoubtedly stopped me attending weekend music festivals. Had Glastonbury been on my bucket list, a bucket would also have been on the list. Anyway, I have to stop talking about this now because it’s making me want to go...
We shouldn’t have to pay
If there’s one thing that makes my blood boil… well, it’s two things, actually. It was in 1999 that it dawned on me how councils were charging people to do what comes naturally. When you’re desperately trying to steer a young child to a public loo, on holiday, you don’t want to be fiddling around, having to find several pennies in order to spend one. Black mark to the borough of Poole, the culprit at that time. I won’t be back.
The second thing is the closure of public conveniences since austerity struck and councils saw their eradication as an easy way of saving cash.
Sitting targets, if you like.
Public loos are a symbol of civilisation – something for which we should all share the bill, fairly painlessly, via local taxation. Towns and villages that make it hard to find relief, as it were, won’t be seeing me again. I’ll take my money to places that appreciate their visitors.
Angry? Well, a bit flushed, certainly…Steven Russell
Festival loos are the worst
You might be able to cross your legs when you are out and about but when you are at a festival you have no choice but to use the toilets (I use that word in the loosest sense) on offer.
There is an art to this. Go for the long drops (more ventilation), arm yourself with toilet paper before you go in and clip your antibac to your belt loops or jacket toggle.
Try and use a cubicle vacated by a woman, do not sit down under any circumstances and do not breathe in through your nose (sometimes locking your face into the crook of your elbow works).
Most importantly, get out as fast as possible – you can antibac on the way out and it is perfectly acceptable to do your belt up once outside.
Portable loos leave me traumatised
When it comes to public toilets, I hate them with a passion – but portable toilets took it to a whole new level.
I had to use them having just completed the Virgin London Marathon and you can only imagine what state they were in having been used by thousands of runners.
I was left traumatised by the overwhelming smell, wet floor (with who knows what) and lack of toilet paper.
The experience reaffirmed what I already knew – I’ll definitely be keeping my distance from public and portable toilets
She worries about rocking the plane
I rarely have any change on me, often resulting in a queue of increasingly irate people doing the convenience conga behind me. My wife has no problem at all with walking into a shop, pub, etc to use theirs for free. I end up leaving after buying something to assuage my guilt that somehow I’m not supporting local businesses if I don’t.
I don’t really mind spending money, spending it only to virtually aqua-plane across a dirty, wet floor is different. A friend, who’ll remain nameless, is reluctant to use public toilets, especially on trains and planes for this reason. Although she confided the reason for not using them on the latter is because she was worried moving about would throw the plane off balance.
It’d be nice to know those in charge of public toilets are cleaning up in more than just monetary terms.