Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Closing Night

It is my last night in the room that has been mine for three years. It's emptier than it has ever been... even the day I moved in, when it was still full of books and possessions from the previous resident.

People have been asking me all day how I feel about going tomorrow. 

The answer is I don't really feel much. It still doesn't seem real. 

An excessive amount of baggage is coming back with me.

Even though my bags are packed, closets and drawers emptied and boarding pass printed I don't believe it... and probably won't until I'm actually on the way... until I land, spend days then weeks then months in California, forget the familiarity of riding across the river on the bus, Tuesday night Morris Dancing, and last minute theatre tickets. 

I hate endings. I always have. When I was little I used to throw tantrums when it was time to leave friends houses. I'd hide behind the sofa, throw myself on the floor, beg for just ten minutes more. But they always got me in the end. No play date lasts forever. 

As I've gotten older things have changed. Not the hatred of endings... that's still solidly there. But I can't hide from them anymore... there's no one to come drag me out from under the bed and cary me kicking and screaming to the car. So I have to do it myself. It might be slightly more dignified, but I do sometimes hate being a grown up. 

I wonder if the shutting the ending out is part of that coping mechanism. If I don't realize I'm going until I'm gone then it's not so painful... and once I'm in the new place I'll adjust quickly enough.

There's plenty to be excited about in the new place. I have the feeling 2015 is going to be a very different and good year... but then again aren't they all?

To all my California friends, I can't wait to see you! And to London friends, not goodbye but à bientôt!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Boarder Control: A post script

If you're a regular reader than you'll already know my previous experiences with boarder control (if you haven't you can catch up here

This is the soundtrack for the current blogpost. 

Every time I have to come through UK boarder control it makes me want to come back less. Maybe Jerusalem was builded here on England's green and pleasant land... but bow of burning gold and arrows of desire seem to fall too short and mental fight too exhausting. 

I had just come back from Barcelona... which was an amazing city, and reminded me of the joy of discovering new places and traditions. I was in a good mood. 

I went to the window and hand the woman my passport and landing card. She asked me to move to the left (so I'm standing to the side of the window and only had a partial view of here.) That’s never happened before but maybe I was in the wrong place? I moved.

I thought I was prepared this time. I had my return ticket to California printed, along with the latest bank statements.

She asked the usual questions… where I had been, how long I was staying. But she seemed confused about how long I was staying and how long I had been there. Finally it came out that my recent trip was the problem. She started to interrogate me about my last meeting with boarder control and what I had said to the agent there. 

“Why didn’t you tell her that you were going to Barcelona”

“I hadn’t planned the trip yet.”

“You can't just go and come back when you feel like it.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Are you planning on going anywhere else?”

“…no?” (not entirely true… I had been thinking about a few places, but that seemed like it would complicate the issue.)

In the end she stamped my passport telling me “I’ve put the date of your ticket. If you don’t leave on that day you’ll have problems.”

She went back to the computer and didn’t look at me again. I guess she was done with me? I waited a few seconds and then left. She didn’t try to stop me.

Not “Enjoy your stay. Welcome to England.” More like “We don’t want you here and the sooner you go home the better.”

Maybe I was in the wrong… there are so many rules that keeping up on the intricacies is impossible without being an immigration lawyer. Maybe she was just a bully having a bad day. Maybe somewhere half way between the two.

I know I am a generally privileged person… I have never had to deal with discrimination. So it’s a weird sensation, even on such a mild scale, to have my intentions or my right to be somewhere questioned, and to feel like the system is determined to find fault with me no matter how carefully I step. It's not as though I have no where to return to. But I want to be here. I've vowed my eternal love and sacrifice and all those things for no other reward than to be able to live here and be a part of the life and culture that I feel so much a part of.

If they keep protecting this country so militantly from outside intrusion before long there will be very little left to protect.

Is there one, anyone, behind those doors
To whom the Heart can still be explained? 
Is there one, anyone, who still may care? 
Who are these dark archangels? 
Will they be conquered? 
Will they be doomed? 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

On Eating Alone

Thoughts scribbled on a napkin in a Vietnamese restaurant in Barcelona… 11pm.

I have never been out for a meal by myself before. 

Cafes, yes. Takeaway yes. But  actually sitting down and ordering proper food that will take time to prepare and more time to eat and more time waiting for the bill… never. An odd realization that it has taken more than a quarter of a century for me to do this.

Is it that it feels odd because I don’t do it? 
Or does it feel odd because it is in fact an unusual thing to do?

No one else here is alone. The four friends on my left are talking (in English) about South Park and Downton Abbey.  The girls on my right are speaking Catalan, so no idea, but they look like a birthday… one of them is obviously the woman of the hour. Just me then. Do they notice me as much as I notice them, or are they too busy for noticing?

When the appetizer arrived I left the plate in the middle of the table as I normally would, leaving drippings of sweet and sour sauce across the table as the spring rolls made the long journey to my mouth. Half way through the first one it struck me how silly this was. They are all mine… no phantom friend to share them with. I moved the plate closer. All mine.

It’s both sad and liberating. Like many of the things in my travels… and my life, I suppose. Weighing the benefit of company vs. the freedom of doing what I want the later often wins. But with it comes solitude.

It’s bitter sweet because I had expected company tonight. A whirlwind hello with a friend passing through a foreign country at the same time as me. We met, along with other friends and friends of friends. They went to a bar. Not my scene and not my people. I stayed long enough to be polite (I hoped), and then the law of my own feet took hold. The most important thing I have learned… if you don’t like where you are change it. Staying won’t make anyone happy.

So alone like often. Not by choice but by default.

Is it wrong that I’d rather be sitting alone scratching philosophical drivel on a napkin with a drying out ball point pen than getting drunk and discussing it? No. Unusual maybe. I’m not unhappy or happy. Just being.

Later thoughts: Not written on the napkin.

A friend recently shared this scene from Luis Bunuel's "The Phantom of Liberty" with me... strangely appropriate in conjunction with taboos and social norms. I'm like the man at the end in more ways than one I guess.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

T'estimo Caga-Barcelona!

I am in love with Barcelona. For many reasons, actually, but the biggest is that this country seems obsessed with poo. At least when it comes to Christmas traditions.


In my friend's apartment there is a log with a happy face on it and some stubby little legs. She explaned to me that this is a Caga Tió (Literally "A Shitting Log.") Starting on December 8 (The Feast of Immaculate Conception) children put out food for him which the parents must secretly take a way bit by bit... because the Tió is eating. On Christmas the children hit the Tió with a stick and order it to defecate while singing special songs. Then they have to go to another part of the house and pray for gifts... while they are doing this the parents put presents under the Tió's blanket. They do this over and over again with increasingly smaller presents until the Tió has nothing left. She said "traditionally it used to be nuts and fruit, but these days it's more likely to be xboxes.

We went to the Christmas market where Caga Tiós of all sizes were on sale, from massive ones the size of a small puppy to teeny tiny ones an inch or two long. 


The other popular poop related tradition is the Caganer (The Shitter), a figurine in the nativity scene. Traditionally dressed as a Catalonian peasant, but can take all sorts of forms. The market stalls included pop figures, politicians, footballers, and a variety of characters from Yoda to Shakespeare.

We spent a long time looking and giggling over them. I bought myself a small traditional one, but am tempted to go back and get more.

The origins of the figure are disputed, but he seems to date back to the baroque period at least. It could just be for the humorous element or to take the piss (especially with the newer political figures), but there is quite a lot of scholarly writing around the symbolism of fertilityEthnographer Joan Amades says: 

"[Caganers were] customary figure in pessebres [nativity scenes] in the 19th century, because people believed that this deposit [symbolically] fertilized the ground of the pessebre, which became fertile and ensured the pessebre for the following year, and with it, the health of body and peace of mind required to make the pessebre, with the joy and happiness brought by Christmas near the hearth. Placing this figurine in the pessebre brought good luck and joy and not doing so brought adversity."

Even the City's official Nativity display had one. He traditionally hides round the back, so it's not as though he takes front and center, or upstages anyone, but you still know he's there.

Apparently there was a row in 2005 because the city chose not to include a Caganer in their display... reportedly due to the city's new bylaws which made public urination and defecation illegal (though the city later denied this.) The Caganer was restored the following year.

The non-poo-related highlight of the day was a visit to the Museu de la Xocolata... but even there there were white and dark chocolate Caganers to be had. There may not be a lot of public toilets, but Barcelona is otherwise a city after my own heart!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Attitudes On Immigration

One thing that a lot of people have said to me (and indeed I've been guilty of saying it myself) is that it's unfair that while someone from the EU can come over and claim benefits and while people like me who start businesses and pay taxes are sent home.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that this in itself is a destructive attitude. It panders to the media bias that the majority of immigrants are benefits seeking scroungers, and perpetuates the negativity around it. It places me in the 'exception rather than the rule' category. Though I appreciate people's empathy the truth is I am no more or less worthy than most other immigrants.

The thing that actually prompted me to write this post (which has been in the works for awhile) was an article in the Guardian Blog: Does Britain Really Want to be the Country Nobody Would Migrate To? She says more or less what I feel. If the country is going down hill it needs to look internally and not blame immigrants. One statement rang particularly true for me:
"The only thing maintaining the flow of migrants is that nobody reads the Daily Mail until they arrive, and only then do they realise how coarse and brutal our politics have become, how pessimistic."
The truth, though I don't always like to admit it, is that I might have fought harder if the overall attitude here were better. I don't mind not having access to benefits. I don't mind the fact that as long as I live in London I'll probably be in shared rented accommodation while my peers back home are starting to buy houses and cars. I don't even mind that it isn't easy to get a visa... I'd do the paperwork and pay the fees. Those are sacrifices I was willing to make to live the London dream: 24/7 access to culture, all of Europe on the doorstep, the stunning English Country side less than an hour's train journey away, the occasional brush with celebrity and fame. But when on top of all the struggles the national attitude towards immigration is so negative it makes me want to throw it all back in their face and say "fine. I don't want to live in your stupid country anyway." Which of course I don't mean... because I do.

I had an interesting experience coming back into the UK recently after my visa had run out. When you are Tier 1 they don't put your visa in your passport like they do for students. Instead you are issued with an ID card called a Biometric Residence Permit.

The woman thumbing through my passport at boarder control noted that my last student visa had run out in 2012.
"Yes, I know. I've been here on a Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur Visa. Do you need to see my biometric residence permit?"  
I gave it to her. A quick glance and she told me curtly:
"This is expired you shouldn't have it anymore."  
"Yes, I know it's expired. That's why I left the country." 
"Well, you need to send it back to the UKBA" 
First I'd heard of that. Plus, she asked to see it! What would she have said to me if I didn't have it? After being grilled on the length of my stay, why I was coming back in, my financial situation, my plans for employment back in the US, and showing her my ticket for my return flight home I was let through.

Welcome to Britain. Now go back to where you came from.

What can you do? 

A lot of kind and lovely people have asked me over the past months whether there's anything they can do. Here are two:

1) Think before you speak... be aware of your accidental prejudices. Keep a critical eye on articles about benefits scroungers and the things that come out of your own mouth (even if they're intended to be well meaning and comforting to a friend.) It takes a fair bit of bravery for anyone to immigrate and start a new life... doubly so if English is a second language.

2) Do write letters! Let politicians know that these pervasive attitudes are not okay... celebrate the positive aspects of immigration. I don't expect you to single handedly fix the country, but writing a letter will take 5 minutes and a stamp, and at best it will potentially benefit thousands of others like me (not to mention thousands of others like you who won't lose friends to deportation.)

For a bit of light reading I also recommend Schrodinger's Immigrant who exists simultaneously in a state of stealing jobs and claiming benefits. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey... the wonderful randomness of life.

This post has very little to do with anything I normally write about on this blog (toilets or entrepreneurship.) But it's my blog, and I can do what I want, so hey! I get to do a self-indulgent ramble about myself once in awhile. 

This is a story of random encounters, unexpected thought provoking meetings, and the things I will miss the most about London. 

This story really starts a couple weeks ago… 

I should really start by introducing you to my parrot, Newton. He was a Christmas gift in 2012… the
year I got stuck in the UK over Christmas because UKBA couldn’t be bothered to return my passport in time for me to get home and see my family. After a month of sitting in my room looking sad I started taking him out for adventures. After a couple weeks of bringing him to the office if I forgot people would ask after him. “You can’t come in without Newt!” Story of my life…. My parrot becoming more popular than me. I liked him partly because he made people smile, but also because he acted as what my academic friends would call permission object. London is notorious for people living in bubbles. But it only takes a small variation from the norm to pop them. Newt provides that introduction. He was also great for business networking events, which have never been my forte. I'm not very good at just striking up a conversation, but having a parrot got people's attention. And I figured it was a good filter: anyone who didn't want to talk to Newt probably wasn't going to be very interesting to me.

As time went on and I started doing Loo Tours Newt came out less. I reasoned it’s  all well and good to be the parrot lady or to be the toilet lady. But trying to be them both at once is perhaps a bit much. There is a threshold of crazy eccentric which even I haven't quite crossed yet. 

Back to two weeks ago. 

I was on my way home from the theatre. High on life good conversation and possibly half a glass of red wine (normally I stop at half a shandy, so that's quite indulgent for me.) I was taking a slightly unusual route home and had just got off the Piccadilly line (where I had been having a nice chat about public toilets with a green grocer) and was waiting for the Victoria line train back to Brixton. A smartly dressed man on the platform a little way down looked familiar. Danny Pink from Doctor Who? I thought so, but I wasn’t about to ask. He yawned. It was contagious. I yawned. He smiled. Once again Newt proved an icebreaker, and we started chatting.

By the time we got on the train I had told him about Newton and Loo Tours… he was skeptical, but he did come up with a pun I’ve not heard before (an increasingly difficult task) so we can forgive him that. “If I came I’d say ‘out of ten you're an eight’” (You have to read it out loud…) Finally, once I’d thoroughly exhausted talking about my quirks I got to ask “so what do you do.” “I’m an actor.” Ahha! “You’re in Doctor Who.” “I was.” “They killed you.” “I killed myself.” We talked a little bit about the show (Perhaps because of the alcohol I proceeded to try and explain without very much eloquence why I'm not a fan of Steven Moffat as a head writer (that is another long blog post.) He listened politely.) I asked what he was up to now that he had turned into a cyberman and blown himself up he told me he was currently in a play called State Red at the Hampstead Theatre.

Fast forward two weeks…

Me and Newton decided spur of the moment to go to the matinee of State Red. I am trying to take as much advantage as possible of London Theatre in my last few weeks here, so will follow any lead. We got there quite early so I grabbed a tea and found the only empty table in the crowded downstairs lobby. I had been there for a few minutes when another woman asked if she could join. We got talking. We connected pretty quickly and the half hour to the start of the play flew by. She shared her cake with me. Since seating in the theatre was un-reserved we sat together.

The play was timely. Institutionalized racism within the police force… all the things my facebook feed has been exploding from in the wake of Furgison. 

Spoiler Alert! 

Samuel Anderson (that's Danny Pink) plays Luke, a mixed race police officer who returns home the night before his father is named Police Commissioner. Through the play Luke's past comes out. He shot a young black man and has spent the past year coming to terms with his relationship to the police to their practices, to his family, to the family of the boy that died... 

After the play my new friend and I chatted a bit more in the theatre until an usher threw us out. She talked a little bit about her experience as a mixed race disabled woman. Something she said has really stuck with me; “There needs to be compassion for people who can’t see their own blindness.” 

I think I understood what she was driving at. Institutionalized racism, sexism, abelism... most any -ism is often perpetuated most dangerously by well meaning people. At one point in the play Luke grills his friend Matthew (I paraphrase profusely)... "when you think of a gangster what image comes to your mind?" Matthew sidesteps... "tracksuit... trainers... knife..." eventually he reluctantly concludes "and we're in London, so probably a young black male." Similar situations come up at other points where Luke forces members of his family to confront their own prejudices. They all have difficulty... no one wants to admit they're racist (it isn't Avenue Q.) 

She had to run off to catch a train, so I said goodbye promised to stay in touch and waited in the lobby on the off chance I'd be remembered and get to say hello. While I was waiting I noticed a gaggle of people with doctor who tat... surrounding a man who turned out to be none other than Peter Capaldi (the current Doctor Who.) I was remembered (or at least Newton was.) I did something I only do on very special occasions and asked for a picture. Once for the memory banks. An homage to random chances. 

Never mind that since moving to London I've got an MA, set up two businesses and been featured on international news... the fact that I met Doctor Who for about 30 seconds is the thing that most of my US friends are most impressed by.
People have been asking me what I'll miss the most about London when I move home. I think it is the possibilities this city has to offer. It feels like anything could happen here. You could meet anyone and be anything. It is a city that says yes to things. All the best things I have done have been accidents. Being in the right place or doing the right thing at the right time. The people you meet, whether a passing brush with celebrity or deep conversation with a stranger. 

I suppose that can be said of anything in life... if I had taken my normal train home, if I hadn't bought a tea, if I hadn't gone to the matinee...  if I'd've gone home for christmas two years ago... I never would have met... never would have talked to... a seemingly random chain of events leads to a conclusion (that is really just another random event in the grand scheme of things.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

World Toilet Day & Leaving

I've been thinking about this day a lot for almost a year. For quite a lot of reasons.


The day when a small fraction of the world does some silly things and some serious things while another (hopefully slightly larger) fraction look on and say "World Toilet Day? What's that?" Hopefully a few of them come out a bit the wiser, and we've made another minuscule dent in the sanitation crisis.

If you want to know more about what all is going on I recommend the UN's dedicated World Toilet Day page.

If you've been reading this blog regularly (or semi-regularly, since my posts are hardly like clockwork) you'll know this is a big day for me as well.

I'm writing this blog post from a few miles in the air somewhere between England and Norway. The deed is done. In about half an hour my passport will be stamped and I'll no longer be a 'Graduate Entrepreneur' but a plain old tourist enjoying the sites of London and trying to pack my life back into two suitcases.

The identity crisis will pass. I'm still me. I will still do quirky things. This past month of largely working on recording the Audio Guide for Loo Tours has confirmed that. If you haven't already seen it, the place to visit is lootours.com/AudioTour. When I get back to the UK I'll be talking with potential future guides, building partnerships, and finding more ways to embed what I've done in London. Growth, not giving up. All the rage and frustration at the immigration laws and randomess of the system are still there, but I'm coming to terms with them. They fuel new projects rather than holding me back (I hope)

The captain just announced landing. The seat belt sign is on. And I need to sign off.

Here's to new adventures and an even bigger World Toilet Day next year!

Rachel x

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Doing it My Way: A Big Choice.

Having lunch with a friend a few weeks ago I shared an observation which I think I've said here in different ways:
"I know that I'm being really stubborn with how I'm going about trying to stay in London. I don't want to stay there by any means necessary. I want to stay on my terms!" 
He replied "That's a sign you're someone who will be very successful." 
"Or just someone who will be kicked out of England in a few months," I said.

Thinking on that I have come to a decision, and it's not the one I ever thought I would be making:

I think it's time to go.

It's time to embrace the fact that things are about to change and get on with it. I've invested a good lot of time into worrying, stressing and looking for ways for that not to happen... fighting circumstances I can't change. In a way parts of my life have been put on hold while I have waited for the miracle that wouldn't come. It's much more productive to take ownership of the situation, and start working to my terms with the things I can control.

It's not a decision that comes easily. I love England and I love what I've built here and what I do. I also know that if I leave things will be different. But I have also decided that that is okay, and the time is right. I'm proud (and I think justly so) of what I have built, and moving away doesn't seem like the failure it would have a year ago.

My final month can therefore be spent giving my all to making it the best month I can, both personally and professionally. I'll be recording two audio tours, to keep a record of the tours, and maybe a space open for me to step back into when I do make it back. I'll be trying to spend time with and continue to learn from all the wonderful friends and colleagues I have met here. And I'll be doing a bit more traveling around the UK and Europe and checking off some of those places I've been wanting to see but not had the chance.

It's not goodbye for ever, and I certainly intend to be back one way or another. England will always be my second home, and I still maintain I was accidentally born more English than American.

I don't know what the future will hold. And that is scary, but also a bit exciting. A lot has happened in the last 25 years, and I expect this is still just the beginning. It has been one hell of a ride, and I'm hugely greatful for all the wonderful teachers, mentors, friends, tour guests, and toileteers who have shared it with me!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Butting in.... then a rant.

I just did something I almost never do and made a fuss in the middle of someone elses argument. Public access to private toilets has been on my mind lately, and I can't keep it in.

I was ordering at Cafe Nero on Lancaster Place by Waterloo Bridge and a couple guys walked past me in the area between the counter and the steps down to the loo.

"Just going to use the toilet?" the manager asked.

They nodded.

"Toilets for customers only."

At which point I chimed in "oh come on! Let them go!"

One of the guys produced his cafe Nero loyalty card complete with 9 stamps.

I asked if one of them could have my go if I promised not to.

All to no effect.

I gave them a Loo Tours leaflet and pointed out that there are free toilets in Somerset House next door. I think the two men were far more embarrassed than they would have been if I said nothing. The manager gave me a lecture about how he has to keep toilets clean for his customers and maybe Somerset House has full time cleaners but they don't.

I completely understand that it's not their job to provide toilets. They serve food. The manager is probably the one with the most justifiable case in this argument. But the idealist in me still thinks there ought to be a human element to it.


Should the customer/provider relationship be considered a long term one or is it relevant only at the time of transaction? Do I reset to non-customer each time I set foot out the door and therefore must enter as a blank slate and an unknown quantity each time? Or does it end when they take my plate away (just in case I am carefully nursing the remaining crumbs of red velvet cake. I'm not done and don't intend to be for the next hour at least!)

What if I buy a coffee at Cafe Nero today and don't need to use the toilet and will likely buy one in the future without going but need to use the toilet tomorrow?

These men were obviously not strangers to the place (or at least to the chain)... 9 stamps on a relatively new looking loyalty card. But he was still a "non-customer" which suggests that higher value is placed on the individual monetary transactions than on long-term customer loyalty.

Could you have a stamp card that indicates on which visit the toilet was used, and save up toilet points for future use?

Should what you are allowed to do in the toilet be dependent upon the amount you spend? If you just get a coffee you can only have a wee, but coffee and a cake is worth a number one and number two?

I am definitely over thinking this.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Loo Lady takes the plunge

I have been thinking a lot about how tied up I am with the identity of London Loo Tours and what it's going to mean both for that brand and for me if I end up back in the US next year. Now that I am bringing others on board the "me" and "we" of Loo Tours was starting to get fuzzy. Do I tweet pictures of my morris dance events and where I went for dinner, or should I stick to toilets? And if toilets, just tour specific? Or my recent trip to Sketch?

The result  of these thoughts plus a couple insomniac nights and a lot of Ghiradelli chocolate chips has been that the Loo Lady now has her own website and twitter account:

These will be a place to list things that don't quite fit into the Loo Tours brand. It frees up Loo Tours as a specific project to do with on-street site-specific exploration of toilets and sanitation and storytelling, while the Loo Lady can run off and pursue other things from crazy ideas like knitting toilet paper scarves (the Knitters for Shitters project) to supporting other organizations and events, to development of new projects. There will still be a lot of cross-promotion I'm sure, but it's a chance for me to take a step back and start thinking more about the different pieces of what I have created. 

It's a way of claiming the identity I've created... whether as a smart business move or a purely self-indulgent whim.

The Loo Lady by Laura Nash

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"I don't know if I want anyone to buy me"

Much to do, but a friend pointed me towards an episode of This American Life (which I'm listening to while I work) and I need to take time out for a quick thought:


A snippet from it stuck with me:
"Chris isn't looking for profitable. He's looking for Twitter. Something Huge. Or if not twitter then something he could sell to twitter or some other big company. He asked me this question: 'What would the exit be?' and by that he means what large company will buy your company in 3-5 years.... I hadn't really thought about that question. I don't know if I want anyone to buy me."
This sums up exactly how I feel about Loo Tours and the Loo Lady. They are too personal to me. They are something I'd love to expand, but that I always want to be an integral part of. And that's why Loo Tours itself will never be big business.

That said, I have always said that the great thing about dignity is you can sell it over and over again.

Here's a song from Tom Lehrer

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Important things

It has been a weird and interesting day, and after yesterday's rant against politics and money I've been offered a potential opportunity for something that would slightly force me to swallow some of those words. It may or may not come to be, but it's certainly giving me pause to reflect.

Things that are important to me (in no particular order):

1) Doing things that spread happiness.

2) Doing things that make the world a better, safer or more equitable place.

3) Starting things that have the potential to become bigger than myself.

4) Surprising others. Surprising myself.

5) Keeping creativity as an integral part of anything I do.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Immigration Frustration: I don't speak money.

My visa expires in just over two months. World Toilet Day. At the moment there is no clear way forward. I'm torn between so many things it's exhausting. Frustration with the system. Frustration with myself. Sometimes the desire to just pack it all in and go back to a place where I can just take a job, or start a project without worrying about whether it will work on paper. Other times the desire to fight to keep what I have going here.

The biggest frustration is that I don't seem to fit a category. There are boxes. There is no to be no concession to be made for Micro Enterprises... for people who provide some kind of benefit to society that isn't measured in six or seven figures.

These are the current categories of visa that are almost but not quite open to me.
Tier 1- Entrepreneur: This is what I was meant to become from my current visa. I would have to secure £50,000 of investment. Not imposible. Yet not probable. 
Tier 1- Exceptional Promise/Talent: I could almost squeeze trough this category except for the fact I am missing the vital element of having won an international award. It's a very limited visa, mostly reserved for people who it would be embarrassing for them to have to throw out. Easiest way to get it is to win an Oscar. But still may provide the most flexibility for people who think outside the normal rules. 
Tier 2 Visa: Find an employer who wants you enough. Prove that you are uniquely qualified for this job... that no Brit could possibly take your place. They are increasingly hard to come by, and in many ways I enjoy the freedom of self employment far too much. 
And a more unusual one 
Marriage Visa: I've looked at it more than I care to admit... would I? Possibly, if the right situation arose. Marriage as an institution was about business partnerships long before it was about love and romance... and there is no reason it can't continue to be. But at the same time I am possibly biased just enough by Hollywood Happily Ever Afters that I'd quite like to find one true love one day and not have that be complicated by previous marriages... stigma of divorce and all that. There's a philosophical blog post in and of itself.

The thing that I have been coming to terms with is that my life choices are entirely my responsibility, and I know these things going in.

I could have spent the last two years pursuing wealth and learning to be a good capitalist consumer. I could have switched to an industry where 50k is peanuts.

It was my choice not to do that.

I know that I prefer to operate on my own terms. If I ever did build a business empire I would want it to be built on the pursuit of something meaningful rather than on the pursuit of wealth. And that principal is more important to me than a visa. I love England desperately much, but not enough to play that game.

I suppose you could (and many would) argue that this means my commitment to the end of staying in England is not strong enough. I remember a speaker at Entrepreneurs 2012 (I won't name and shame) giving the following call to action:
"If I said to you could you go out and make £1m in the next month would you think this was possible? No. But what if I said to you that if you don't do this your family and everyone you care about will die... feeling more motivated now? Do you think you could do it? Of course you could! The only thing that stands in your way is your own inhibitions."
The moral of the story was that we should sign up to his business seminar to teach us how to break through those inhibitions and transform ourselves from lazy bums to millionaires.

I took away a different moral: that values are relative. If making £1m is the most important thing to you then you probably can find a way to make it... but probably at the price of trampling a lot of other people (which was the general un-spoken theme of the Entrepreneurs 2012 event... those with drive come out on top and everyone else is a sucker.) Sacrifices are always made one way or another.

I remember sitting at this conference and feeling furious that men (and they were all men) who could brag about the upsells on their Ferrari in one breath and explain the benefits out outsourcing secretaries from the Philippines in the next were valued members of the British society, while people like me who wanted to work had to fight tooth and nail to stay.

Once it was Latin or French... now Money seems to be the language of the elite, and I'm a poor country bumpkin who doesn't speak it.

For me time is running out, and at some point soon solid decisions will have to be made. I have been stalling and feeling lost, but I'm determined to make one before one is made for me, though I don't yet know what it will be.

Friday, September 12, 2014

I am a Toilet Permission Object: the who and why of the Loo Lady

Defining who I am and what I do has been very much on my mind lately as I face potentially major changes both in location and career. I always feel like “reflections on my own practice” is a terribly pretentious phrase used by out of touch academics but I suppose that’s what this is.

These particular reflections are based on a great conversation with a new friend.

“You’re a toilet permission object!”

I have been called many things in my time, but that was a new one. The revelation came over coffee and chat in a new friend’s office. The connotations could get interesting there, but I actually like the label so much I wrote it on my arm so as not to forget it before writing this blog post (Now hoping I'll be able to get it off before my Morris Dance gig tonight!) 

I spent the last couple days at the Watershed in Bristol participating in the Making The City Playable conference … a chance for artists, city planners officers, and various others to get together and talk about how play can be facilitated or allowed to happen in cities (and what exactly that means!)

I went to the conference very much with my Loo Lady hat on. Having spent so long in toilets and seen them from many angles I have become increasingly interested in how I can put the peculiar set of knowledge and toolkit I am developing to good use. There are many serious angles to toilets, and I want to see how the soft approach of humour, storytelling and fun might help advance these agendas rather than allow people to write them off (which is admittedly a risk to that approach if the balance isn’t right.)

In many ways I am fortunate to have entered the toilet field as a clean slate. I just  put out an open search for toilets, and therefore sit at the centre of a fascinating web… local toilet politics, city planning, global development, water, architecture, disease… if it somehow comes back to the human process of relieving oneself and how we deal with that then I leave no depths un plumbed.

I have found that putting out this open invitation of “toilets!” leads to a number of different conversations. It is something that every human being identifies with on some level, and everyone has a story whether they know it or not. Usually as soon as they know that I’m open to hearing these stories they want to tell them. This extends to complete strangers who have stumbled across my website or seen an interview and take the initiative to write to me.  They range from best/worst toilets  to people’s toilet sins… places they urinated where they shouldn’t or times they left a toilet somewhere blocked up. I often wonder if they feel somehow absolved by having shared those stories.

I was reflecting on this when my new title was coined.

“You’re a toilet permission object!”

A “permission object” is something that enables people to do something out of ordinary behavioral norms. A superhero cape gives you permission to go running down the street singing the batman theme tune. A cute cuddly toy gives you permission to interact in ways you wouldn't normally. 

This guy is a much cuter permission object than I will ever be!
His creators are http://slingshoteffect.co.uk/
The beauty of it is that there is an equal exchange of permission going on. I may be the perceived permission object, but I become that because that is what they have given me permission to be.

It is a character or a persona that has evolved organically. When I first started doing toilet tours the interest was very casual. Friends started sending me things about toilets… not because I ever asked them to, but because they wanted to share. Every morning I would wake up to find my facebook wall flooded with new articles and stories, “have you seen…?”s and “Did you know…?”s. Even the name The Loo Lady was given to me by someone else. All I have done is to say “yes” as these things happen.

It is very important to me that I do not shove toilets in people’s faces (either literally or metaphorically.) I try not to evangelize, and have made it a rule to let other people take the initial lead on any toilet conversation. I only tell them what I do if they ask, and I only elaborate when they show interest (which is usually.) If they show interest in a topic will accept their offers and expand on them, but it’s always down to someone else to engage.

The Loo Lady is, in many ways, inextricably linked with me. I share her unbridled enthusiasm for toilets, but she’s not the only person I can be (I sometimes have to remind people of this… more than one person has started an invitation “it’s not about toilets, but…”) I am curious whether she, or what she stands for at least, might exist independently of me. What is it that allows “toilet permission” to be granted? Do I spawn a new toilet permission object each time a tour guest goes away to share toilet stories with their friends?

More food for thought on the PhD front (academicism is a slippery slope… I really ought to look into registering myself for a 12-step recovery programme!)

Friday, September 5, 2014

How Henry VIII Dissolved the Toilets and Other Things I Learned in York

I have a UK bucket list of adventures to complete in the next two and a half months.

Number one on the list: The York Historic Toilet Tour!

I have known for awhile that I'm not the world's only. Google tells me there was a woman in Berlin who started them in 2010, though I haven't been able to trace her. But a few months back I discovered another British colleague operating in York.

On Wednesday I traveled on a ridiculously early train from London to York in time for the 10:30am start. I found the gate where several others were waiting. By the time the tour started there were about ten people.

Our guide, Warrick, plunged right in with the puns... "So you're all here for this crappy tour?" He told us straight off that the tour was going to be full of jokes and rude words and that this sometimes offends people. It made me giggle because one comment I used to get early on in my own toilet-touring career was that there weren't enough! I guess you can't please all the people all the time. I won't recap the entire tour here, as it would be very long indeed (and I've got to leave those of you in York a reason to go yourselves!)

We walked to the wall in the museum gardens where he showed us some pictures of toilets and started in with the Romans. Familiar territory there... communal latrines, the sponge on a stick. Roman York had a population of about 10,000.

Then we got into less familiar territory. After the Romans Great Britain was invaded by "a bunch of pesky Eastern European immigrants... called the English." The Angles and Saxons brought with them their own lavatory systems, which usually involved the digging of cesspits.

Up until the 1500's good sanitary practices were maintained in monasteries which continued to have plumbing and encouraged hand washing. Many public toilets were funded through 'Pious Endowments' (Warrick described these as endowments made on a deathbed so people would sit and pray for the soul of the deceased.) Then came Henry VIII and with the dissolution of the Monasteries came the dissolution of the toilets. The sanctuaries of health and hygiene were dismantled and parceled out to the king's favorites.

From there we wandered past the smallest window in York (the window of a Gardrobe!), through some free toilets, and up the walls. In between stops he would jet off in front of the group quite quickly, but when we were gathered the stories continued to flow through the Victorians and into modern York.

York's Smallest Window
Toilets in the King's Manor just outside the city walls are clean and free! 

We ended near the site of the convenience known as 'Splash Palace' which had been erected at the end of Parliament Street in 1991 and was dismantled several years ago due to its garishness and problems of maintaining the facilities (it must have still been standing when I last visited in 2010, but that was before I was quite so aware of toilets!)

I asked Warrick how he got into toilet tours (I'm always interested in how people start on the subject!) and he told me the first inspiration was a lecture by Andrew 'Bone' Jones who gave a lecture on the subject but didn't have time to develop a tour of his own. His other main source has been Hugh Murray's 'Where To Go in York' written in 2000. It is a 59 page history of the local toilets.

The book is out of print, but Warrick sold copies at the end of the tour, so I'm now the proud owner of a copy. It made for some good reading on the train home.

Warrick, Me, and the 'Where to Go in York' book!

In the book everything pre-victorian is covered in the first three and a half pages. York went through a similar population expansion to London between 1801 and 1850 with the population  more than doubling. But it seems the consideration of toilets was driven largely by beer. Urinals were erected at every city gate, so that men had no excuse for not passing by them

A urinal would have once stood by this wall near where the black door is. They eventually put a roof on it not so much to protect the users as to protect passing ladies from an unpleasant view. 

The book ends with the current state of affairs in 2000 when it was published:
"The current situation is that York now has just 13 public conveniences, six in the city centre (one for the exclusive use of the disabled), five in car or coach parks, and just two in the suburbs. This is a far cry from the heady days of the 19th Century. Whether this is adequate for a city which relies on its visitors for its well-being, only time will tell, but what is certain is that the need will always be there unless the human race can be genetically re-engineered." 

It seems things have declined a bit since then. Splash Palace is closed with nothing to replace it, and there are now ten facilities listed on the City of York's website. Yet tourist trade still appears to be booming. You can't turn a corner without bumping into a guided walk of some sort, and the attractions are constantly busy. Perhaps their saving grace is the small size of the town... you can walk one end to the other in 15 minutes or less, so chances are that unless your need sneaks up on you there won't be too far to go.

Another potential saving grace is the friendliness of the people in the city. From a professor of Medieval Latin Literature who chatted with me in the coffee shop, to a woman who stopped to ask me about my knitting, to the friendly fellows of the Fudge Kitchen who entertained me while I took forever to make up my mind... I don't think I've talked with so many strangers in the space of 24 hours in a good long while. I can't see any of them refusing toilet access to the needy.

After wandering around York for the day I had intended to go see a play, but after waiting at the theatre for about 20 minutes I and my fellow would-be audience members were told it was canceled. I went back to wandering the streets hunting for abandoned toilet sites until I was eventually adopted by one of York's Ghost Walks (www.theoriginalghostwalkofyork.co.uk)

Mark, the tour guide, was great fun. It was a slightly more historically grounded ghost tour than a lot of the others I have been on, and he had both a great storytelling technique and brilliant crowd control skills.

In a funny crossover, George Villiars, Duke of Buckingham featured on the tour, haunting a pub by the river. His highness gets a passing credit on the Loo Tour as the owner of a stunning watergate, now landlocked by the Embankment which was built to house the sewer system. Apparently when he died it was his wish to be buried in York, but the King had other ideas, so his body was interred in London. But that didn't stop him from going back to haunt the Cock and Bottle pub which stood on top of a piece of land he once owned.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sci-Fi from the Bottom Up (A Talk for Loncon 3)

For those who missed it, or those who want a refresher, here are the notes from ‘From The Bottom Up: The Fantastical World of Human Waste’ delivered at Loncon on 17 August, 2014.
Disclaimer: The words that actually came out of my mouth may or may not bear any resemblance to the original plan!


Hello and thank you to everyone who has not only stuck it out until 9pm but also chosen to come to a talk about toilets over going to the Hugo Awards Ceremony!
I expect this makes you all extremely intelligent interesting and classy people, so I hope we’ll eventually get on to a rousing discussion about the role of science fiction in inspiring new real world innovations. But first I’m going to speak for a bit about why I pitched this talk, and my own research into the subject.

I currently run London Loo Tours, which is a walking tour of public toilets. The whole thing started as a joke. If you have been around London you’ll know that a lot of the public toilets here cost anywhere from 20 to 50p to use… which if you are a poor and miserly student like I was when I moved here can sometimes be dinner money! I thought the tour might last a month and that would be that, but a year and a half later it is more or less my full time job, and I have found the topic more bottomless than I could have imagined. It encompasses such a wide range of topics; health, history, sociology, anthropology, psychology…  (and many other things ending on –ology!)

But when a friend suggested I pitch a talk on the subject for Loncon even I was initially a bit stumped. In my experience science fiction and fantasy tend to be about space ships and dragons… Not sewer systems and poo!

But then I came across the following quote from the website of the Bill and Melinda Gates re-invent the toilet challenge which was launched in 2011 to encourage engineers to find new solutions to global sanitation:

“Although we can fly people to the moon, 40 percent of the world’s population - 2.5 billion people - practice open defecation or lack adequate sanitation facilities.”
~ Dr. Doulaye Kone

I want you to picture the scale of the problem for a moment… imagine that a third of you aren’t allowed to use the toilets in the ExCel centre. When you have to go, you’re going to have to go outside and find as private a place as you can. Most of you are going to end up practicing open defecation (which in laymens terms means having a shit on the side of the road.)

In 2002 the United Nations set a series of development goals meant to be achieved by 2015. The most off-track of these is 7c: to halve the number of people without access to a toilet. While sanitation is often the under-valued ugly duckling compared to it’s much sexier cousin ‘access to clean water’ it is one of the best investments a country can make.
A lack of sanitation is the number one killer of children in developing coun­tries, and leads to decreased productivity and higher school drop-out rates, particularly among young women.

Coming back closer to the world of Science Fiction: several months back I saw an interesting headline in the Evening Standard:

‘Young engineers more likely to be inspired by Iron Man than Brunel’.

A study carried out by Career Academies UK on students ages 16 to 19 had found that the young people tended to cite films such as Transformers, The Matrix and Star Wars rather than historical figures having inspired them to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects.

The article took a sort of despairing doom and gloom tone… what a world are we coming to when young people care more about fantasy than their history.

But I thought “AWESOME!!!” At last some validation that two degrees and tens of thousands of dollars spent on learning how to entertain people might be justifiable from the perspective of social good after all!!!

Science fiction tends to look outwards towards the stars, and not back. But anyone who is suitably nerdy has probably at some point asked themselves where the toilets are on the star trek enterprise.

There is a whole wiki page devoted to this subject! A couple highlights:

“The brig aboard Starfleet ships included facilities such as a sink and toilet, which were enclosed behind the wall until needed. A sign above the toilet read "do not use while in spacedock." (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier)”

According to Jonathan Frakes during the "Journey's End: The Saga of Star Trek: The Next Generation" special in 1994, the Enterprise-D had only one bathroom and he proceeded to point to it on the large cross-section of the Enterprise-D in the main engineering set.

Or on the TARDIS… this one is harder to find answers to on forums, but there have certainly been plenty of parodies due to the similarity of the shape of the Police Box and the portable toilet! In fact there was an interesting investigation in September 2013 on Tardis Toilet Hire…  a company which had been trading for 15 years. BBC carefully protect their logo and the name, which they trademarked in 1976, but the company argued that his logo was not in any way meant to resemble the time and space traveling machine (okay, maybe it had a light on top and windows, but it was orange so couldn’t possibly be copyright infringement.)

In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey a zero gravity toilet was included, complete with instructions for use. Descriptions include devices such as a “Sonvac cleanser” and “the uroliminator.”

In researching this talk I also stumbled across several forum threads on the flushable toilets in Mass Effect. (see here)

But toilets are usually thrown in as light relief. They rarely take center stage.

While humans or aliens couldn’t function the same without them, they are either too taboo to talk extensively about, or too mundane a part of every day life to be included as key points in the story. So we have to be content with the fact that they are there somewhere and function exactly the way they are supposed to (as evidenced by the fact that there isn’t poo sitting in the hallways or - in zero gravity contexts- floating through the ship!)

One notable exception to this rule of sidelining sanitation in the world of Science Fiction and Fantasy is of course Terry Pratchett. Pick up any of his disc world books and you will almost without fail find some reference to a lavatory, cesspit, or dung-heap. He has even written ‘The World of Poo” (a companion to Snuff) which features young Geoffery’s adventures learning about the wonderful world of human waste.

The Pratchet character with whom I have the strongest affinity is, of course Harry King… Piss Harry to his friends and King of the Golden River to most others.

Harry’s fortunes are based from enterprises dealing in human waste. To quote from The Truth:

“The real foundations of his fortune came from when he started leaving empty buckets at various hostelries around the city… he charged a modest fee to take them away when they were full [… ] in a small way, making the world a better smelling place.” (The Truth, 107)

But Harry doesn’t stop there. The passage goes on to say:

 “There is very little, however disgusting, that isn’t used somewhere in some in­dustry. There are people who want large quantities of ammonia and salt petre.” (ibid)

It’s a model not dissimilar to the Roman urine collectors who used to leave pots at the corners of streets, which they could then sell on for tanning, dying and whitening teeth (there is excellent Latin poetry about how if someone had a very white smile you knew exactly what he had been gargling!)  The practice was so common that the Roman Emperor Vespasian actually imposed a tax on Urine in the year 70AD.

Pratchett’s sources are reasonably grounded in History. I pestered his publisher awhile back to see whether he could enlighten me on the matter and he very kindly wrote back to tell me that sources included Henry Mayhew’s Labour and the London Poor and Dorethy Hatley’s Water in England (Not Vespasian as far as he knew… but I still think there is some resemblance in the business model!)

Anyone who has read the Diskworld books will be aware that Ankh Morpork bears a striking resemblance to 19th Century London. This is, coincidentally or not, about the time when the flush toilet started becoming popular. While the flushing toilet was in many ways one of the greatest life-saving devices ever invented it also served to divorce humans to some extent from their excrement.

Have you ever stopped to think about how cool toilets actually are? You go for a poo or a wee in a porcelain bowl (and how often do you even eat off porcelain), push a button and it magically disappears never to be seen again (at least by you!) We do this five or six times a day, flushing over a third of the clean drinking water in the UK!

We can do this largely because in the year 1858 London faced the Great Stink, when the pollution of two and a half million humans became too much for the city to handle. It was a very hot June and the Thames heated up and smelled so bad that the problem could no longer be ignored. The man called upon was engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette who built London’s Sewer System, which carried all the waste out of London to the east (where they still actually dumped it directly into the Thames, but at least not in the city centre, and it could be washed out by the tides.) This is the same system we still use in London today, though it is now treated before it is released back into the wild.

It was the beginning of a new revolution and sanitation as we know it today, but the end of night soil men, gong farmers and urine collectors, and in some ways the end of a natural and practical recycling loop.

There is a second reason I am fond of Terry Pratchett in addition to his un-squeamishness when it comes to the scatological. It is the way he constructs his worlds, and the rules which they follow.

A key idea Pratchett often speaks about is Narrativium.

“Humans add narrativium to their world. They insist on interpreting the universe as if it’s telling a story. This leads them to focus on facts that fit the story, while ignoring those that don’t.”
                        (Science of Diskworld I:233)

 Narrativium is how we make sense of which facts of our world to take into account. In Diskworld things happen in particular ways because that’s how it makes sense for them to work. A commonly cited example is that dragons breath fire not because they have asbestos lungs (or similar such nonsense) but because everyone knows that’s what dragons do.

I find it singularly appropriate therefore that such a practical approach is taken to bodily functions and what happens to the waste. It makes a good kind of sense. It is a harmonious recycling loop, where nutrients come back round.

As a general rule this sadly cannot be said of our round-world narrative. Re-using our own waste is no longer seen as a natural idea, but something rather odd and a bit gross.

This may well be changing over the next few decades.

Though no entrepreneurs have yet plumbed the depths of Harry King’s monopoly on the market entrepreneurs are beginning to show an increased interest in the subject. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s  ‘Re-invent the toilet’ challenge not only focused on finding new non-waterborne means of waste disposal includes a remit to:

 “[Remove] germs from human waste and [recover] valuable resources such as energy, clean water, and nutrients.”

A current example of award winners are a group of researchers at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory who have developed a means of charging mobile phones using urine. The researchers say:

“One of the problems is going to be people’s perception to actually using their own waste as a potential source of fuel. There is a definite yuk factor.”

I wonder whether story telling might serve as inspiration not only for engineers and inventors but for influencing our every day behavior.

 There are over 7 Billion people living on earth. On aver­age it is estimated that the world’s population can produce 2.8 billion gallons of urine in a day: enough to fill up 4,200 Olympic swimming pools! So whoever can find a way to harness that resource and reuse it will be onto something fantastic indeed!

I leave you with the following question, though of course our discussion may take many additional directions!

1) How has science fiction inspired you?

2) What role do you think stories, films, games and fantasy worlds might have in influencing real life behavior?

3) And of course just for fun… any favorite science fiction toilet moments?

There followed a hugely engaging 45-minute discussion with many contributors from the audience. I was not able to transcribe most of it, but have included a very few highlights and notes below (and may add more as time allows.) A tremendous thank you to all who shared stories!

 Do feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section, on twitter (@londonlootours #lonconloos) and over the dinner table!

Further mentions of toilets/scatological in Science Fiction:

Babylon 5 includes a scene at a urinal. 

Robocop includes a toilet scene (viewable here)... note the CCTV in the toilet!

The Martian by Andy Weir stars an astronaut, botanist and engineer stranded on mars who must improvise with the available resources (including human waste) to survive.

The Dark Light Years by Brian Aldiss deals with human encounters with Aliens called the Utods who worship their own feces.

A further Terry Pratchett influence is The Specialist.

The mysterious origins of the word 'Loo':

The origins of the word “Loo” are frequently attributed to the Medieval cry of “Gardy-loo” (derived from French “Gardez-l’eau… the polite thing to shout before emptying a chamber pot out the window.)

This was called into question, and an audience member supplied a link suggesting more recent origins.

Museums and Exhibitions worth visiting:

Gladstone Pottery Museum in Stoke on Trent
National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC