The urban landscape rarely stands still; one only has to have lived longer than four decades to occasionally slide into the ‘I remember when all this were fields’ monologue we remember ridiculing when children. The opening line of ‘Come Dancing’ by The Kinks taps into this as so many of Ray Davies’ wistful observations of such changes do – ‘They put a parking lot on the piece of land/where the supermarket used to stand/Before that they put up a bowling alley/on the site that used to be the local palais.’
Rows of houses disappearing beneath the wrecking ball and new homes rising from the ashes, Lego-like twenty-first century shopping centres standing where a nineteenth century parade of shops once stood, spare land claimed by another opportunistic developer and a fresh estate of Trumpton residences appears from nowhere – we’ve all witnessed it and we accept it as progress, whether we approve of the transformation of our surroundings or not. But sometimes it is the artefacts installed by local authorities, so commonplace that we take them for granted, that vanish without us really noticing. Public phone boxes are an obvious example; but what of the humble public convenience?
When I was a child, it seemed public toilets could be located on virtually every street corner, whether sturdy Victorian edifices or more modern constructions; the awareness of authorities that the bowel and bladder needs of the people were something that had to be catered for meant one didn’t have to walk for more than ten minutes before encountering these obligatory urban insignias. Some were even situated underground, giving a tube station ambience to streets hundreds of miles from the capital.
However, if I ever return to pavements I trod in my formative years, none of the public loos I remember are there anymore; they’ve all gone. Where do pedestrians go if they’re caught short today? Phone boxes have been severely reduced by the viral spread of the mobile, but no such object has appeared to render the public convenience irrelevant. Yet they appear to have become virtually extinct.
Of course, many childhood memories are not necessarily evoked with historical accuracy; dissatisfaction with the present can coat the past in more alluring colours. When it comes to public conveniences, though, remembrance of just how appalling the hygiene inside some of them actually was can’t be softened even when viewed through spectacles with a rosy tint. Maintenance seemed to be a low priority, with vandalism abundant and the rotting calling cards of previous visitors evident to both one’s eyes and nose.
Archive images of gleaming tiled palaces manned by uniformed janitors were a long way from the grubby, dirty and stinking hovels of effluence I recall wading through merely to relieve myself with as much haste as I could manage. I suppose, as with any building erected for public use, neglect by those entrusted with its upkeep will inevitably result in such grotty decay; and it certainly looked as if the authorities weren’t concerned with the WC.
Lest we forget, public conveniences also had another purpose, one cloaked in the seedy shadows of a less enlightened age when gentlemen with alternative needs had few locations to express them. What was legally known as ‘importuning’ was one way of meeting new friends in the dark days before homosexual acts between consenting adults in private were decriminalised, and public loos sat alongside other high street premises on the evening itinerary of the patrolling police officer doing the night-shift. It was so prevalent at one point that boys in blue with a poor arrest rate would stoop to the distasteful practice of entrapment. The high thrill-factor for some who indulged even survived the changes to the law and, though still a criminal offence (if no longer a necessary evil), cottaging continues on a smaller scale as a risky strain of erotic nostalgia. Just ask George Michael.
In the 90s, the self-contained automated ‘space age loo’ began to appear on the odd street corner, though they seemed less discreet than their predecessors and the characteristically British embarrassment associated with toilet activities made an entrance and exit into these Tardis-like booths something to be avoided. Ironically, the disappearance of the public loos of old came just before the rise of the binge-drinking craze, and the absence of somewhere to go once released from the confines of the hostelry resulted in walls, pavements and shop doorways serving as a substitute; even public phone boxes could no longer be relied upon to provide emergency relief due to their own reduction.
For the sober seeking to spend a penny today, toilet facilities in fast-food joints have become the convenient convenience, and I guess there’s probably already more than one generation unaware that there were once facilities provided by the authorities that didn’t require the guilty purchase of a burger once nature’s call has been answered. And while I appreciate this isn’t a subject matter of urgency when one considers the wider dramas of 2016, I suppose it all depends on how desperate you are…
© The Editor