Monday, December 16, 2013

Loo of the Year Awards

It's a week now since the Loo of the Year Awards and with the frantic christmas preparations I've not had time until now to sit down and do them justice.

The Loo of the Year Awards simply oozed class. People may poke fun at the name and giggle that such an event exists, but it was generally a pun-free zone. I'll admit I had initially raised an eyebrow at the ticket prices (over £100 once you factor in vat), but having been, not only am I glad I forked out, but I understand it. It's an event that brings together a whole range of people from washroom attendants and cleaners to owners of large companies, all dressed to the nines and enjoying a 4 course dinner . A chance to celebrate in a rather posh way a job that is often anything but.

The award (and associated ceremony) are given each year with one simple objective in mind:
"To encourage the highest possible standards inall types of 'Away from Home' or Public Toilets"
It celebrates good provision and spotlight those who are going above and beyond. It raises the bar and gives incentive for people to focus on toilets, which is particularly needed in this day and age.

This year there were 1424 entries. Brighton & Hove city council went home with the overall 2013 Loo of the Year Award trophy. McDonald's Weatherspoons and Asda each cleaned up a fair few awards and trophies. While it's tempting to raise eyebrows at the corporate-ness of the event, again, given the number of people I know who use the toilet facilities at these establishments on a regular basis the awards are probably well deserved and paid for. Who says large monopolizing corperations can't be a force for good in the world?

One of the things that pleased me most was hearing the feedback to a presentation about Changing Places Toilets, which are designed for people with profound access needs above and beyond the remit of a standard disabled toilet. Because I have read up on them and talk to people about them every time I do a tour it is easy to assume that everyone gets it... especially people who work in toilet related industries. So to hear people fervently discussing the idea was good. If even a few of those discussions lead on to action then we're onto something.

Here's the video we watched at the event.

The other surprising thing was the lack of enthusiasm about loos from some of the people I talked to. I have met skeptics in the general population, but between the World Toilet Summit and the UCLoo festival I have been conditioned to believe that everyone who works in the sanitation industry is massively curious about both history and social good. Maybe that's a new market for me... shedding new light on business as usual. That might prove the hardest sell of any, but who doesn't like a challenge?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Passionate people

It never ceases to surprise me how useful the subject of toilets can be as an icebreaker!

It has been awhile since I managed a post. Largely due to the UCLoo festival and an unexpected rush of enquiries about Christmas bookings (Why didn't I  think of that... oh wait!) The best thing about these few weeks has been the people I have met. Most significant development of late is a decision to focus more full-time on toilets and really try and develop Loo Tours over the next year. 

I've come out of the water-closet so to speak. 

I went to my first networking event as an outed Loo Lady last week. Events in the past I have gone trying to represent my other business and invariably wound up talking about toilets anyway. 

The event itself was alright. It was designed to facilitate networking, and so all the speakers were there to coach us on the subject of how to maximise your networking power, command the room with body language, and make the most of connections. Because business, after all, is about people. 

We did everything from speed pitches, to eye contact exercises to starting a percussive orchestra. We heard a short presentation from a brilliant French Storyteller. But the evening underwhelmed me, and that was largely down to the final speaker. 

I had actually met him before his talk started, and liked him well enough then. He engaged, he asked questions, he was friendly. But the moment he came on the floor and started speaking I could tell within about 10 seconds that there was going to be a sales pitch at the end. His manner and the website on the screen behind him were dead givaways.

I immediately liked him less. Sitting through a sales pitch disguised as a motivational speech is something I promised myself I would never do again if I could avoid it. Though I must admit he was quite clever actually marketing-wise. He mostly told us about the things people commonly do wrong. He set up a couple well constructed if slightly exaggerated straw-man scenarios showing us what not to do (e.g. Don't barge in between two people engaged in wrapped conversation. Noted.) And he inexplicably talked a lot about the fact that he was bald? (Actually, there could be a number of good explanations. The most likely being that he was painting the picture of himself as one of us… it's a 'flaw'/'insecurity' he could reference without breaking down his credentials as a brilliant networker.)

What troubled me the most was all his talk about how people love sincerity. It felt fake. It may not have been... He may sincerely love his job and I can well believe he has inspired people who have been terrified of networking. Maybe it is just my residual bias from Entrepreneurs 2012, where I sat through 3 days of hard-sells for thousands of pounds worth of coaching (To his credit he didn't go on about the benefits of outsourcing your secretaries from the Philippines.) But all the 'tricks' he taught us recast the way we had interacted at the beginning of the night. He's good at his own game. 

It reenforced why I like toilets though.

The peculiar subject has a way of bringing out something very genuine in people. When they really engage you can see the spark of interest. Not everyone will, and that's okay, but when they do it is magical. 

As I was dashing out the door avoiding having to comment on what I thought of the final presentation, a Slovenian man approached me.

"I LOVE your job!!!" He told me. 

"I love it too!!!" I said.

I answered a few questions about the tour, and then he had a story he wanted to share. 

There is a Slovenian psychologist named Slavoj Zizek who compares the architecture of different cultures... and more specifically how toilets relate to ideology. There are three main ones: German, French, American.

The Germans are very organized and analytical. They have a shelf so that they can see their poo before they flush it down. Make sure it’s healthy, the right colour and the right texture and all of that.

The French don’t want to see it or smell it. They are revolutionary, and tt disappears into the bend as soon as they produce it, as though it had been severed from the body by a guillotine.

Americans… well, they are more laid back. They keep their options open. They have a lot of water in the bowl and it floats around. You can look at it if you want… or you can just flush.

Here is a clip of Zizek in action. The man himself is almost as entertaining as his theories.

The next day brought more delightful adventures. I had a group in the afternoon who had bought the loo tour as a birthday present for their friend... and not told him what it was. They were an amazing lot, and very forthcoming with stories of their own.

That night I went to a Thanksgiving dinner at a friend's house. I knew no one else there, but when I revealed how I had spent the afternoon we were suddenly off on a half-hour conversation about poo, victorian health reforms and Dalit toilet cleaners in India. A very knowledgeable bunch of friends!

Why is it such a good topic?

I think it's special because you wouldn't go into it to impress anyone. So if you know and remember something it is probably out of genuine interest and care.

It's all about people.

... Back to business and a shameless self plug at the end (see, I can learn from everyone!) I am quickly adding items to my online shop!!! You can now buy gift-certificates, cards, and as of today, a 3D photo calendar! 

I can't promise any of them will make you rich or successful or famous... but they will make you smile. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

World Toilet Day: Bringing it Home to UCL

Many things happened to celebrate World Toilet Day, from the ridiculous to the sublime. But one of the most meaningful bits of the day for me was being there for University College London's opening of their Eco Loo to launch the UCLoo festival, which will be running for the next two weeks.

About 50 people gathered in the bitter cold on the quad outside the North Observatory where an Eco Loo has been installed for the two weeks of the festival. We all queued (a good british event!) holding letters that spelled out
The number represents the number of people who still lack access to a loo (Most stats show it's down to 2.5 Billion, but either case it's far too many!)

The queuing was followed by an introduction from Barbara Penner, the festival organiser who got me on board in the first place. She spoke very eloquently about the goal of the festival. They want to go beyond recognising the crisis in developing countries to considering the state of the toilets we use every day. To quote from their website:

... concern about the global sanitation crisis still focuses almost exclusively on what is happening ‘out there’ in the Global South, in Southeast Asia, India, and Africa. What about the Global North, which relies on systems that have not been seriously revisited for 150 years?
The organizers of UCLoo Festival believes is only by looking at sanitation cross-culturally and globally that we may come to consider our own “flush and forget” mentality more critically. Toilets should not be taken for granted. 
Far from being too unimportant to discuss, few technologies do more to create healthy, equitable, and sustainable cities.

So the festival is a celebration and exploration of alternatives not only for philanthropic international purposes, but for all of us here and now. 

No less a man than the Provost himself was present to cut the (loo paper) ribbon on the door. He too had a few words to say about the loo. He reminded us of the heritage of UCL, and it's long and noble connection with sanitary affairs.

The college first opened its doors in 1828. It's mission was ambitious. At a time when most other capitol cities boasted prestigious Universities London was lacking one. The only other major institutions in the UK were Oxford and Cambridge, and both were quite elite and exclusive. Jeremy Bentham, who is considered to be the spiritual father of UCL (though he had no direct involvement with its creation) described them as "the two great public nusciences" and "storehouses and nurseries of political corruption."

UCL was to be open to all, regardless of background (though the £2-£5 course fees still made it un affordable to the working class.) Religion would not be taught, nor would religious affiliation be required for entry. Critics of the college christened it "the radical infidel college" and "the Godless institution of Gower Street."

The college stuck steadfastly to its principals of reason and science.

Among the distinguished faculty of the college was a certain Doctor Edmund Alexander Parkes, who accepted the chair of Hygine in 1860. Parkes died in 1876 from tuberculosis. His colleagues considered the best way to honour him and came up with the idea of a sanitary museum that would be open to all, but was primarily to benefit working men, and, most particularly those who installed sanitary fittings. 

At the opening speech, Sir William Jenner (himself a renowned sanitarian) said: 
Dr Parkes... was one of the most amiable men that ever lived. I think he was the nearest to perfection 
that I have, in my long experience, been acquainted with. He was not only amiable, but he loved his race, and desired on all occasions to benefit others. He thought little of himself, and devoted the last years of his life to the study of hygiene and how it could be applied for the public good, and died deeply regretted by all who knew him. When he was dead the profession thought how they could best honour his memory-what memorial we could erect to so excellent, so good, so honourable, so great a man
…it was determined to found a Museum for the purpose of spreading abroad the knowledge of those principles of hygiene to which Dr. Parkes had devoted the energies of his latter days. And so we joined together to found the Parkes Museum.

The museum was financed by many rich patrons, including the Queen herself, and the opening night was a splendid affair at which a "large and influential" gathering of guests swept up the grand staircase to view the exhibition and listen to several speeches. The upper class had an especial interest in the idea of information for all, because, as Jenner rightly pointed out in his speech, the security of their homes relied on well informed tradesmen.

We have to understand that the re-emergance of the flushing toilet was still relatively new. As architecture was developing and more and more functions from cooking to bathing to defecating were taking place within the home. This means more complex networks of pipes and the emergence of an understanding of houses as living breathing organisms with considerations of air circulation. Endless possibilities for progress, but also an increase in the potential for disaster.

Jenner emphasized his point with a suitably dramatic anecdote:

I happened to come home in the middle of the work (in my home), and the foreman pointed out to me that he had fixed a D - trap to a certain pipe, and I said I would not have a D - trap. He said it was a model thing. When I turned upon him, and said, " A D-trap ; I call it a double D-trap, for it will deal out disease and death."

D-traps always require inspecting. The fact was that these so-called intelligent workmen were desirous of doing what was right, but were ignorant how to do it.

Ignorance, said Jenner, breeds these things. Yet despite the success of the Parkes Museum, which was housed at UCL until 1892, and only closed its doors in 1971 we, as a population, are still largely ignorant about toilets. It comes back to what Barbara calls the "Flush and Forget" mentality. We fear unlikely things like germs on the toilet seat (if you pick up a disease from sitting on it you're doing something very wrong!) but not what happens to our waste, or how it might come back to haunt us. We flush tissues, antibiotics, tampons, condoms, goldfish, mobile phones... all of which gets treated out as best we know how, but the system is not foolproof. 

A flushing toilet has become so synonymous with civilization that it's hard to imagine any other way. 

Opposition to waterborne sanitation has been around for some time, and proponants includeinclude Buckminster Fuller, Theodore Rosovelt and Karl Marx. A few choice pithy quotes: 
“In London they can find no better use for the excretion of four and a half million human beings than to contaminate the Thames with it at heavy expense.” (Marx) 
“Civilized people should have found some other way to dispose of waste than putting it into clean drinking water." (Rosovelt) 

“the biggest waste of water in the country by far. You spend half a pint and flush two gallons” (Prince Philip) 

All this ramble is really in preparation for my tour tomorrow, which will lead toileteers through the campus, discussing all this plus the challenges of catering to an international student body, Jeremy Bentham's principals of utilitarianism ("Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number") and panopticon ("the more closely people are watched the better they will behave") ... what the latter has to do with toilets is a slightly more chilling subject for another blog post. 

The UCLoo Festival runs 19 November to 3 December
A full programme for the festival can be downloaded here

Monday, November 18, 2013

Paying Respects: Holidays that make a difference

How do you catch the imagination of a nation? Or of the world?

World Toilet day is already here in Singapore, and that's my excuse for starting my post a day early (as it's still Monday here in London.) I have been looking forward to the day for awhile, and doubtless there will be much to tell after tomorrow. But in the calm before the storm it seemed a good time to reflect on what the day is actually about.

Number one: It is a chance to raise awareness. Most people don't even know what the day itself is about, let alone that there is a global sanitation crisis. And that's the first hurdle.

I was thinking about how you create a holiday as I rode the bus down Whitehall this morning. Here in London we have just had Remembrance Sunday, and World War I memorials are still covered in freshly laid wreaths paying tribute to the soldiers who gave their lives. Poppies still haven't entirely disappeared from lapels. Tourist gather, whether to pay respects or to gawk.

The poppy has become such an evocative symbol. People may have a diverse range of opinions on the matter, but they know what it means, and poppies have become the center of many debates. The poppies sold by the Royal British Legion support the armed forces, and their fundraising target for 2013 was £37m.

The image has been used since the 1920's and originates from a poem by John McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow      
Between the crosses, row on row,   
That mark our place; and in the sky   
The larks, still bravely singing, fly 
Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,   
Loved and were loved, and now we lie         
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe: 
To you from failing hands we throw   
The torch; be yours to hold it high.   
If ye break faith with us who die 
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. 
Before I get called out for disrespecting the dead by bringing them into the toilet debate, here's the eternal question: 1.5 million children die every year because of poor sanitation. That's one every 20 seconds. Where are their memorials? Is their sacrifice less worthy because it was not voluntary? Because they never reached an age where they would be able to make a voluntary sacrifice if called upon. 

They have no means of fighting the enemy. Their enemy is germs. Their weapons: a combination of education and functioning toilets. Weapons that cost less than artillery and cannons, and only save lives rather than destroy them. It should be a no brainer! 

But lapel pins for the cause are distinctly lacking, as is an international moment of silence broadcast on TV. The Queen probably won't be giving a speech. No wreaths will be laid. Even though this cause has an impact on far more people (indeed, on everyone in the world!) And has done since long before nations and boarders were even invented. 

Is it that the crisis is too massive? Too immediate? Too every-day? Too taboo? Not a specific enough event? Probably all of the above and more.

Perhaps it's just because I want to believe it, but I am back to my cry of Art is the way! 
We need a poet of McCrae's caliber to conjure us an image we can get behind (and, though it rather spoils the moment to say it, an image we can market!) A web of symbols and rituals that we can't ignore because we want to participate. 

And in 2015 to mark the success (partial if not complete) of the UN's millennium development goals, why not an arts festival on par with the WWI centenary celebrations due to take off next year? 

World Toilet Day is only 12 years old, so perhaps I am impatient. Maybe it too will come into its place in the limelite when it hits its Centenary. But seeing as these issues are here today, can't we nudge it along a bit?

As a start: if you do nothing else tomorrow, wish someone a Happy World Toilet Day! I can almost guarantee that that will make one more person who knows. We'll have our field of poppies yet, though we have to plant them ourselves. 

The Tipperary Pub on Fleet Street, London, where non-customers
may use the loo for the price of a donation to the Poppy Appeal.
Photo: Simona Della Valley

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Royal Flush: Creative genius and the toilet

When one sets off to see a play about Thomas Crapper and a modern toilet attendant one never quite knows what to expect… but tends to assume (for better or worse) that it will descend into a toilet-humour fest.

In Royal Flush Nick Lane manages to avoid the temptation almost completely… for 2 hours! He doesn’t bat an eyelash at Thomas Crapper’s singularly appropriate surname, nor does he plunge to the depths of mocking a toilet cleaner’s profession. For this alone he should receive a gold medal. 

Further admiration to the playwright for the fact that he sets out to explore the relationship between Man and Toilet as akin to Frankenstein and his creature: both characters in the two (very different) halves of the production have the slight spark of mad genius to see the toilet as having potential for great things (as well as great annoyance). Though neither part is a gothic thriller, both look at human interaction, both on a human-to-human and human-to-technology level. 

Part I tells the story of Thomas Crapper, through the gimik of his writing a letter to an old flame.  From   it is a touching and thoroughly researched rags to riches story.
Photo: Rich Seam Theatre Company
his apprenticeship in London, through to his engagement to installing royal Toilets at Sandringham

I had the special privilege of watching the play in the company of the current owner of Thomas Crapper & Co. who not only knows the toilets back to front, but is responsible for the updated additions of Thomas Crapper’s biography. So it was for all the world like watching a beloved Shakespeare play in the company of the Bard himself (or close as I’ll probably ever get!)

My favorite memory of the evening will undoubtedly be looking at each other with a knowing smile when Crapper eluded to the one less-fortunate innovation: the bottom slapper toilet (you can read more about that in my Thomas Crapper & Co. blog post!)

Part II brings us forward to 2012 where  a disenfranchised ‘Maintenance engineer’ (toilet cleaner) is getting ready for the royal visit to a new wing of the Old Folks home where he works. This half is more fragmented, faster paced and slightly more scatological (though still pun-avoiding!) There are some clever links to part I… through mentions of Crapper and Shelly’s Frankenstein, and royal connections. Association with the toilet may sometimes be a burden but it also has the potential to offer god-like power (or so our hero sometimes believes… and in some ways he is right.)

In the end it was all an elaborate set up for a punch line that neither I nor my companion saw coming and was perfectly delivered… so once again commendations to the playwright and the actor.

Matthew Booth’s solo performance is quite captivating. It takes a rare actor to sustain a play of that length, commanding a single character with enough variety to tell a story. He slips in and out of supporting roles with remarkable agility, never losing his core narrative. 

As a whole the piece has great potential, but plenty of room for development. Its biggest weakness (which, let’s face it, is the weakness of most new works…) is that is needs to be tightened. Though, as an actor, Booth has no trouble remaining engaging for the entire two hours the narrative could be consolidated more concisely without loosing the essence of the story. Use of imagery and stronger blocking might have been helpful in some places as well; particularly in Crapper’s fairly technical descriptions of his water closets, and in the frequent (and sometimes slightly awkward) transitions between scenes in the second half, which broke up the narrative. But with an essentially strong core all the rest can be developed in time.

Any work which takes such a nuanced look at the fundamental relationship between creative genius and toilet should be celebrated!

If you’re in Halifax on November 17 there’s still time to catch the première. If not, stay tuned for version 2.0, which I sincerely hope will be touring the country before too long!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Dungaroo: Odorless, waterless, economical... and enjoyable!

Back in June, when the idea of toilet entrepreneurs was still new to me, an article in Forbes caught my attention: “Check The Bathroom For Your Next Startup Idea” It was about a young American entrepreneur named Liz Morris, who had created a waterless toilet called 'The Dungaroo'.

Liz seemed a woman after my own heart, and so I sent her an e-mail asking if she'd do an interview for my book, and she very kindly agreed. Skyping from our respective co-working office spaces we carried out my very first interview. She was a natural stand-up comic fully embracing the humorous side of the work, while staying thoroughly grounded in her project and in the knowledge of the problems she was tackling.

When I talked with her in June they had only just released a prototype. This week the Dungaroo has launched an Indigogo campaign, so though the book is still an odd assortment of scribbles and articles sitting in folders marked "to read" it seems an appropriate time for this particular interview to see the light of day.

Into the Loo: From Packaging to Poo

The first thing I always want to know from anyone working in the Sanitation industry is how they got there. What makes a person think "you know what I'd like to do with my life? Create toilets!" 

Liz's story is a particularly good one.

Her background is in product packaging. She earned her BA from the University of Florida and worked for companies like Kraft Foods in England. Her "ahha" moment came when one of her professors asked her "How would you package poo?"She went on to complete her Master's Degree in Environmental Sciences and Engineering in 2011, and came up with the Dungaroo. She told me "I realised I was spending more time doodling toilets than actually writing my thesis!"

The Dungaroo: A dry solution 

In toilet land waterborne sanitation is a big topic. We often think of a flushing toilet as the highest marker of a civilization. Well… maybe not often… but when you are forced to think about toilets, that’s what many would choose. For many people on the planet this is neither realistic or practical.

The beauty of the Dungaroo is it maintains the user experience of a flushing loo, while disposing of the waste in a unique way. With each "flush" gears turn and seal it off in a plastic bag which drops into the tank below. So it doesn’t require serious behavioural change for those who are used to the convenience,

The sanitized contents can then be put disease free into a landfill. It’s not an ideal solution, and ultimately they want to partner with organizations which have an interest in actually using the waste in more productive and sustainable ways. Meantime it at least prevents the spread of disease, contamination of water supply and other problems commonly associated with poor sanitation.

Doing Business

Sanitation Creations was founded in 2011. Liz partnered with her childhood friend Dan, who has an accounting background. She said it was a perfect partnership because, "Not only did we potty train together. Now we are building potties together!"   

The company initially entered as a competitor for the Gates 'Reinvent the toilet challenge.' Though they lost out to the California Institute of Technology's solar powered toilet, they continued with the project, learning about business as they went. 

Liz had a lot of wisdom to offer on the life of a budding entrepreneur. “It’s about patience and perseverance.” That’s a quality needed for for any entrepreneurial endeavour, but she points out that there are extra challenges for a physical product like a toilet, as opposed to digital apps. You can’t just get a bunch of coders in your living room and have something to immediately test. You have to wait for suppliers who won’t always tell you how long it’s going to take or even be on board with the idea. There are a lot of people involved in making a toilet. “You get told ‘no’ every day, but you stick by what you believe in. Sometimes you show them the prototype and they go ‘we don’t make that.’ We respond, ‘yes you do. We just want to use it for something different than you’re used to.’”

Though her work and a large part of her interest are in provision for developing countries her aim is to set up as a profit-making enterprise, rather than becoming dependant on NGOs and grant funding that might be pulled at any time. This allows them to make the product into a viably commercial enterprise and will give a more solid foundation for international work, where there is great social need but less profit to be made.

The potential western market for the product includes boats, cruise ships, airplanes, busses and camper vans, and vacation homes away from municipal sewage lines. Any of these would have to have a septic truck pump their waste, so the Dungaroo can essentially provide the same service with considerably less smell (which anyone who has been nearby a porta-potty being cleaned will appreciate!)

Even in developing countries Liz is open about the fact that there is a use in charging for the product. People have to place a value on it. She compares this her first computer (bought by her parents) to the one that she bought herself. “In college I was always dropping it. Now I treat it more carefully than I would a baby.”

Toilets are something we all should value. This is certainly a good month to show your support with World Toilet day coming up, and campaigns like #celebratethetoilet. You can support the IndieGoGo campaign for Sanitation Creations launch of the Dungaroo Here... and better yet, spread the word! If you start talking to everyone you know about toilets you'll be surprised to learn how interested they will be! 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Men of Worth: Why your toilet matters!

From flowers to jewelry, there’s a bribe for everyone’s budget. 
You can have anyone! All you have to do is dangle the right carrot.
Carrot dating.
Carrot dating? 
Carrot dating is now a thing. 

What has it got to do with anything else I blog about?

More than you think.

Well, three things, at least.

There are plenty of online rants about the absurdity of the selling point (that bribery is the best way to a girl's heart... or whatever bit of her anatomy you're after) so I'll leave you to browse those for yourselves. Instead I'll offer up a bit of insight into why this is of any relevance at all to my world.

1) Entrepreneurship

When I was in the early stages of my Entrepreneur adventures almost a year ago, I suffered through an appalling series of hard-sells to get rich quick at an event called Entrepreneurs 2013. Imagine the smarmiest gathering of annoyingly good salesmen lulling you into the belief that if you spend a couple thousand quid on their seminars you too can become an internet millionaire, and you have some idea.

As disgusting as the event was overall I am glad I went. Under the sales pitches were some fairly interesting lessons... and in fact the inspiration for this blog (and the book I eventually plan to write one day...)

The speaker was Simon Coulson. I detested him. He told us about the up-sells he got on his ferrari in one breath, and the benefits of a low-cost virtual assistant in the next. But he also said something that has stuck with me to this day. I paraphrase:
If you want to make a fortune online you need to tap into a market that will never go away.     Good areas to go into are Property, Weightloss, Wealth Gain, Gambling, Dating...
Toilets were not on the list. And at the time I hadn't yet plunged into that strange and wonderful world. But several months later it occurred to me that if you're looking for a need that every man, woman and child will have from the day they are born to the day they die, then you can't find a better market than toilets. The need is as certain as death and taxes, and comes around considerably more often than either.

The problem (and the reason that they weren't on the list) is that toilets usually hold a living rather than a fortune. The sort of Entrepreneurs who make a business out of them are probably not the ones driving a ferrari that cost more than my five years of private University education and my thoracic surgery put together.  They are the ones who spend half the year in developing countries, are willing to take a financial hit for the greater social good.

This is what actually started my interest in toilet entrepreneurship, and really gave me the final push to attend the World Toilet Summit. Which is where I met the good kind of Entrepreneurs. And learned that there can actually be positive connotations to the phrase "Shitripreneur".  So, Mr. Coulson, thank you for that in any case.

2) Empowered Women

One somewhat more socially conscious version of a carrot struck me (and this really is only very tangentially related, and more a stream of consciousness)

In 2007 India launched a campaign which I have heard referred to by various names, from "No Loo? No I Do" "no toilet, no bride." (Details Here) The idea was to encourage women not to marry into families that didn't have a toilet. With a surplus of available men it was a social pressure that could easily be put on, giving newly educated women more control over their own futures.

In this case it's not about objectification, but empowerment. It's a demand the women make for their own personal safety and dignity. The dangers of not having a toilet in the home range from disease to rape or assault on the way to and from dark fields where open defecation is practiced.

If you were going to push the online dating concept you could always make a website for eligible gentlemen to show off their amenities.

3) Online Dating- The toilet dating phenomenon 

I hadn't had much awareness or interest in online dating (or pre-arranged dating generally) until I started my singles tours with Doing Something. So it's only recently that this sort of thing has even been on my radar. But like with most things, once you've seen it you start noticing it everywhere. So now I've seen (and been on) a range of adventures into that world... with probably a more than usual percentage involving loos or sewage. 

Toilet Dating: Where our carrot is a good sense of humour
and a bit of mutual weirdness. 
It all started when they found my tour and asked if I would do a singles night. I had never been to a pub crawl or a singles night. Suddenly I found myself leading one. When it went viral the press branded it Toilet Dating, and misnomer though it may be it stuck.

The amusing thing is, "Toilet Dating" was probably actually better received by the press than Carrot Dating (which even the Daily Mail takes a skeptical view of). Those that weren't fixated on meeting people over disgusting urinals (which we don't actually do on the tour, I hasten to add!)  recognised it as a potentially quirky and fun thing.

I suppose with any dating platform you'll attract the sort of people you market to. I have said before, but it remains true, that the sort of person who is up for spending three hours thinking about toilets is probably fairly classy. Classy in the toilet? Oh yes! Anyone can take the piss and give you shit and all the classic puns. But the ones who will actually come out for a three hour event have looked deeper... (Okay... we'll nip that metaphor in the bud!)

Furthermore, the people who come probably aren't desperate.  I mean, is that really where they would look if they were? No... they are relaxed and confident enough to have a laugh, a strange night out, and meet some other cool people. Takes the pressure off a bit (no... that wasn't a pun. Shush!)

Last thing, because I'm single and can't resist temptation... 

Boys: Offer me a toilet I can't refuse and this could be your lucky day! (No toilet selfies please. Even I think those are tacky!) 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Art in the Loo

For the last few months as I took the 159 to and from Central London an underground toilet in Kennington caught my eye. I notice toilets in any case, but this one was special because of the bright red sign outside reading 'Artslav'.

The local community has taken on the project of restoring it as a community arts and exhibition space, and I have been waiting to find out what it would be like. This weekend was their opening event, with an exhibition by Ryszard Rybiki. So this morning, after a fairly late start I headed down the ivy covered staircase to see what the space had in store.

Even as underground loos go ArtsLav is relatively small. All the original fixtures have been left in and it still has a grungy newly opened look about it (I mean this in a good way... it's a sense of history and connection to what was once there.)

Potted flowers were placed at the base of each urinal, and candles places on the countertop that has been installed over them (the only significant change to the sanitary fittings)

Equally interesting was talking with Ryszard, who is an absolute bundle of energy. I had come in at the same time as another woman, and as I looked around he was interrogating her about her own art. When she said that she was an amateur, he said "nonsense! There are two types of people! There are artists and not artists." With all this in mind I probably should have known better to answer "On occasion" when asked if I too was an artist. He bounced up and down and said "You are either pregnant or not pregnant. You can't be sort of pregnant." I couldn't help pointing out that you aren't always pregnant. "Yes, thank goodness!" We were saved from beating the metaphor to death by the appearance of some pigeons on the screen projecting images from the camera obscura. This excited him too, and he spent a couple minutes filming the screen. 

When the pigeons had gone conversation turned to the benefits of the space. He told us about deleting facebook friends earlier that week. "She said 'I hope you find better space for next time. 'I thought... 'I have known you so many years. I never knew you were stupid'" he told us cheerfully. 

He went on to discuss philosophy on doctors and art. He believes that doctors are out to get us. While I am not quite as extreme in my beliefs about doctors (when push came to shove I was quite happy to choose being sliced open in a clinical environment over letting a tumor swallow my heart like an Octopus) I do see his point that we should spend more money on champaign and art if we want people to live longer and be happier. "And toilets" I added. He laughed and agreed. 

Quite serious on that point, actually, as poor sanitation costs countries up to 7.2% of their GDP annually. Read a statistic just this morning that access to better toilets would clear about half the hospital beds in Africa (

I left him with my business card, a quick explanation of my interest in the history of Loos and a promise to do some morris dancing at his next charity auction. 

One thing I learned from talking to Ryszard is that the venue still deals with issues of people thinking it is an abandoned toilet and throwing rubbish down the steps. In this sense it represents both the best and worst of what a public toilet can be. Ideally it is a communal space where people can come together to fulfill basic life functions. A sanctuary and a retreat. We have a lot of words to express this: 'restroom', 'retiring room', 'powder room' 'convenience.' Unfortunately many people simply see toilets as a place for waste (human or otherwise)... an outcast undesirable place worthy of little to no respect. It's a self-perpetuating mentality, as people learn not to respect them, and they are closed down due to vandalism, crime and lack of public will to keep them open. 

Maybe the arts are another way into re-training people? If we treated toilets with the reverence we treat our art galleries we might be on to something. Make it welcoming, even participatory (what if we celebrate graffiti as shared expression rather than an annoyance to be periodically cleaned up)

Probably, like the never ending search for perfection in art, the search for perfection in a public toilet has no real end. It is always shifting, subject to time and taste. But it is fun to think about, and experimenting with it might just touch a few lives and make them more fulfilled in some way. 

It's a thought worth considering. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A visit to Crapper & Co.

What happens to the middle of the toilet seat?

Though I have wondered many strange things in my time, this was not a question I had ever thought to ask. But I found out anyway.

I was in the front room of Thomas Crapper & Co in Stratford-Upon-Avon on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. A charming wooden sign with gold lettering above the door caught my attention.  


Of course I had to take a picture. As I was riveted on the sign a voice behind me said “That’s the center of the toilet seat.”

The speaker was Simon Kirby, Chairman of the company. As with so many I have met in the industry he was incredibly pleasant and happy to tell me all about his work. His journey started with antiques and history. As a child, he told me his bedroom was a museum of antiques. His mother’s copy of Temples of Convenience sent the interest in a sanitary wares direction, and he began dealing in antique fittings.

He thought of opening his own reproduction company, and found out that Thomas Crapper and Co. was still in existence. It had been fallow for years after having been sold to a rival company in 1963. Thanks to Simon  and a “a small band of enthusiasts” Crapper & Co is once again an independent name, producing reproductions of Crapper’s original designs including the pride in quality.

Quality is all important. There are plenty of replicas on the market that take the external form and look vintage but are, in fact, modern fittings. The vintage plumbing is only skin deep.

In addition to the factory, Simon continues to collect, and took me on a tour of the impressive array of pieces in his showroom.

Outside he showed me two urinals, which stand like sentinels on either side of the door. They had the apis (get it?) Having only seen pictures of these particular pieces I commented that I was surprised by how low the target was. He said “well, you’re not going to be aiming up!” Goes to show my grasp of the mechanics of male anatomy is minimal in that respect. Probably just as well. Although they do seem to have a lot more fun when it comes to sanitary wares!
famous insect target: the

The discussion of lack of provision for ladies lead us to the bookshelf, full of catalogues of the fathers of our modern toilet. Crapper, Twyford, and even a rare Jennings. These are not your average modern day bathroom catalogue, but large volumes of beautiful colour-print illustration. They would have been sent to architects or perhaps those with very important addresses. Most impressive catalogue was Twyford’s with its gold embossed pages.

The Jennings catalogue also contained maps of the various underground toilets he had installed. Usually there is at least twice as much floor space allocated to men as two women, and many more toilets when you consider that Urinals take up considerably less space.

The most amazing adventure was the upstairs store-room. The small attic was covered in pieces of cisterns, basins, handles. He had a chamber pot with the famous slogan “Use me well and keep me clean, and I’ll not tell what I have seen.” and another with a caricature of Hitler printed on the bottom. On that theme he also had some art-deco taps, which he told me had been removed from the Savoy in the last remodel because it was felt they too closely resembled swastikas.

A less popular invention by Thomas Crapper: the Bottom Slapper! Today the cry of women everywhere is that men to not put the toilet seat down. The Victorians, it seems had the opposite problem: getting men to lift it up! (Sorry boys… you just can’t win. But give us ladies some slack: We get few enough chances to assert our authority in matters of the loo!) Crapper’s solution was a spring-loaded seat, which went down when sat upon, and then returned to its upright position when done. The invention had one unfortunate flaw. The rubber buffets on the bottom of the seat would become tacky over time and cause it to stick to the bowl for a brief time after the pressure had been released. This caused it to leap up and smack the bare bottom of whatever poor soul had just finished their business.

There was a very early composting toilet: the earthenware closet, with a wooden seat and a pan of dirt underneath.

Possibly my favorite gadget in the whole place was the Edwardian musical loo role. Wind it up and it plays Wurlitzer’s Skaters Waltz as you dispense your paper. That should give those Japanese toilets a run for their money any day!

Most of their sales are through agents and showrooms, so they very rarely get to see where their toilets actually end up. They do supply Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurants though, with specially branded loos. They also do restoration. They did the underground loos in Cardiff just a couple of years ago, which are sadly currently shut (you can sign the petition to re-open them here) Their products are good enough that they have been mistaken for originals.

I left with a goody-bag full of treats. No toilets. But  two loo rolls in wonderful boxes, a stack of postcards, the current Crapper catalogue and two editions of Flushed with Pride: The Story if Thomas Crapper (The original one and the updated 2010 version with an intro and epilogue by Simon  himself)

In the epilogue Simon tells the story similar to the one he told me in the show room: the childhood interest, finding out the company was still in existence, slowly and carefully acquiring it (There are lots of juicy details in that... but you should really read the book yourself!) Near the end he says:

“A critic could argue that Mr. Crapper was a forward-looking inventor and we should therefore eschew  reproductions and instead produce modern and progressive wears, but we believe the name is now synonymous with the glories of the past. However our long-term plans are to complete our ‘Victorian’ range, then introduce and Edwardian-to-1920’s set, followed by a choice of 1930’s-1950’s Art Deco fittings. After that perhaps we will give the late-twentieth-century designs a wide berth and leap excitedly headlong into the twenty-first century with some truly futuristic innovations. Perhaps.”

I hope they do, as I would love to see what they would come up with. I imagine something with all the grace and beauty of Crapper’s toilets, but an eye to the advances in sanitary reform and plumbing technology. Or microwaves or whatever we have by then.

Having spent the last week discussing very real and often heart-wrenching concerns about the state of toilets world-wide and focused largely on easily implemented low-tech solutions it can sometimes be hard to reconcile this with an interest in the luxury that is a Crapper toilet. What are the ethics of investing in luxury when 2.5 billion people haven’t a pot to piss in?

To me it is this: Thomas Crapper & Co. are a tribute to the original innovators and are keeping a tradition of function and beauty alive. There are few enough of us who are excited about toilets. Perhaps that’s one reason we’re all so friendly: find a fellow sanitarian and it’s like long-lost-family. Toilets like these give us one more thing to get excited about, and open up new markets of people to talk to about the subject. With so much talk about celebrating the toilet and making toilets a sought-after item we need our heroes! And who better to commemorate and hold up as an example of fine plumbing than Crapper who created a brand that is widely admired and respected one-hundred-and-fifty-three years later?