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!

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. 

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

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Recycling Nature's Bountey

Text to be added shortly, but here, in the meantime is my poster for London's Science Fiction convention!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Talk for Crohn's & Colitis Mid-Essex Medical Meeting.

Notes from a talk delivered for Chron's & Colitis Mid-Essex Group on 14 June, 2014.
Education Centre, Southend Hospital.

A Brief History of Public Toilets and How I got into them

Thank you for inviting me here today! As someone with no medical qualifications I'm here to lighten the mood and hopefully provide a bit of useful information on public toilets. We'll roughly cover:

  • My story, and how I got into doing what I do
  • History of the British Public Toilet (a sneak preview of what you’d get on a tour!) and the social context that has shaped provision of today.
  • Making toilets talkable, and specifically the role of humour in erasing taboos and dealing with uncomfortable subjects. 

Part I: How Loo Tours was created

This is me on graduation day in 2012 from the Central School of Speech and Drama.

I thought my whole life I was going to go into theatre. I grew up doing ballet, and then moved into directing and later into stage management and costuming. I had fallen in love with England during a study-abroad programme during my undergrad, largely because of its arts scene, and decided that this was where I wanted to live forever and ever.

I moved to London in September 2011 to study for my Masters in Applied Theatre, which is essentially theatre with some sort of social mission… so it encompasses theatre in Education, Theatre in development, theatre in prisons… that sort of thing. 

When I wasn’t studying I was always exploring the city, and I developed a slight obsession with where I could use a toilet for free.  I did not like having to pay 30p! You can get a very good sainsbury’s basics chocolate bar for that!

So I started to learn where the free publicly available toilets were. And I started noticing things like the fact that in Westminster station it cost 50p rather than 30.

This lead to a joke with my family that I should write a guidebook (It was going to be called the Wee Guide.)

It would have remained a harmless joke, had I not happened to mention it during an interview to be a tourguide. My interviewer immediately went “you should do a tour of that!”

My first thought was “how?!?!?” We’ll go around and pee for three hours… it’ll be great!”

But being a curious person I started researching to see what I could find, and found it’s a much richer and deeper world than I ever could have imagined. Here are just a few of the adventures I have been on in my year of being a Toilet Tourguide: 

An interview with Paul Martin for ITV's I Never Knew That About Britain
Attending the World Toilet Summit in Solo Indonesia
Running a Loo Tours singles night in collaboration with doingsomething.co.uk

Part II. The Rise of the Public Toilet

One area I focus on particularly in my tours is how the public toilet got to be the way it is.

The British Public Toilet is a sort of institution. Generally public toilets in this country are traced back to the Great Exhibition of 1851 the Crystal Place in Hyde Park. 

Though strictly speaking there were certainly public toilets around before this date, these were the first ones to receive a lot of press and recognition. The project was backed by the Society of the Arts, and they used it as evidence in their final report to parliament that the public of London wanted and needed toilets.

People were somewhat skeptical about the whole thing, but over the 6 months of the exhibition the toilets has 827,280 visitors and raised £2441, 15 Shillings and 9 pence.  When the Crystal Palace was later moved down to Sydenham, George Jennings, the sanitary engineer who had been responsible for the delivery of the project managed to get permission to move the water closets as well, where they continued to generate a profit of approximately £1000 a year.

This sparked a sort of revolution as people realized that there was potential profit to be made with the provision of public toilets, and, if there can ever be said to have been a golden age of public toilet provision, then the end of the 19th century probably was one! 

But all things were not created equal: designers of the time were almost exclusively white able-bodied males, and the toilets of the time very much reflect this. On-street Urinals were much more common than actual water closets, and  often-times even when there were underground toilets provided these were often-times for men only. Even the underground provision often favoured men, with Women's toilets being much fewer and far between. 

A great campaigner for more equitable toilets was the playwright George Bernard Shaw who, in 1910 wrote an essay called “The Unmentionable Case for Women’s Suffrage”

"The unmentionable question of sanitary accommodation occupied a good deal of the time of the Borough Council. I invite the male reader to give his mind to this with some care. The sumptuous public lavatories which now provide the poor man with the only palatial luxuries he ever uses meet two requirements, one of which, being frequent and simple, costs him nothing; whilst the other, involving the use of a separate private apartment, costs him a penny. If this charge of a penny were extended to the gratuitous accommodation, which is used perhaps a thousand times for every once of the other, there would be an explosion of public indignation which would bring to its knees at once any municipal authority which dared to impose it. Women had two grievances in the matter under my Borough Council. The first and worst was, that in most places no sanitary accommodation was provided for them at all. But this, at least, was known and understood. The second, which no man ever thought of until it was pointed out to him, was that even where accommodation was provided, it consisted wholly of the separate apartment at a charge of one penny: an absolutely prohibitive charge for a poor woman… The moment it became known that I was one of those ungentlemanly and unromantic men who reject the angelic theory of womanhood, I received piteous anonymous letters from women begging me to get the penny charge at least reduced to a halfpenny. These letters, and the reports and complaints as to the condition of all the little byways and nooks in the borough which afforded any sort of momentary privacy, revealed a world of unmentionable suffering and subterfuge"

On something of a side note, I have a theory at the moment that the reason we have lived for so long in a male dominated society for so long is men’s ability to pee standing up. Everything from out facilities to the fly front zips on trousers is designed to accommodate this!

This male-domination is a trend that continues a bit even today. 

This is a uri-lift, which is an open-air urinal that remains underground in the daytime and then pops up at night. London has installed quite a few of these, and they are great for preventing drunken men from urinating on the streets.

The company that makes them actually has a similar design that is accessible to women, with a closing door, and a sit-down toilet inside. As far as I know London has not installed a single one of these, so women who are out at night have nowhere to go.

The logic is obvious: Men are anatomically more able to pee anywhere so this is a preventative measure to stop them doing so. Ladies: If we want more toilets we have got to start peeing on the streets!

We have developed what some writers call a 'false consciousness' around toilet provision, and have learned to take for granted longer queus, and holding it when necessary. In my opinion, we need a bit more of Shaw's "explosion of public indignation" to change the situation!

Part III: Toilets and Taboo: Bringing them out of the closet!

This brings us to the heart of the trouble with toilet provision today, and that’s the difficulty people often seem to have in talking about them.

Along with a precedent for toilet provision, the Victorian era has very much evolved our perceptions around taboos and bodily functions and where they take place. We are supposed to be disembodied creatures, and so to admit to our actual physical bodily functions can be embarrassing (and more so if they differ to or are more urgent from other people's needs.) Culture has made them secret and shameful. It is the era where genders were decidedly separated, and toilets became less talkable. To quote Shaw’s essay once again:

“English decency is a rather dirty thing. It is responsible for more indecency than anything else in the world. It is a string of taboos. You must not mention this : you must not appear conscious of that: you must not meddle with the other - at least, not in public. And the consequence is that everything that must not be mentioned in public is mentioned in private as a naughty joke.” (G.B. Shaw, 1910)

That is still the culture we are still in today, although I think toilets are slowly becoming less taboo… One of the things I actually love about my job is that as soon as people learn what I do they usually have a toilet story, and I think, in fact most people are closet toilet-enthusiasts if you get the right hook. 

One of the most prominent global toilet campaigners is Jack Sim, a Singaporean Entrepreneur who goes by the name Mr. Toilet. His campaigning philosophy is that if you can laugh at yourself you can get others to laugh at you. And if you can get them to laugh at you then you can also get them to listen to you.

That is where my work sits at the moment, and I’m always trying to figure out how to use the entertainment side of what I do to get some action to take place. I think one of the biggest challenges around improving toilet provision is that quite a lot of people are apathetic about it, either because it doesn’t affect them very much, or else because we are socially conditioned to deal with the inconvenience. 

So What Can we Do About It? 

These are just a few general points, and there are doubtless many more things that can be done, but they are my recommended simple starting steps: 
  • Let MPs and local councils know it’s important to you! As long as people are silent about it they are likely to continue closures. Chances are though, they do want to give you what you want. 
  • Celebrate what is done well!!! From letting councils know what is working to letting local businesses know how much you appreciate being allowed access when they grant it! If a toilet is particularly well-kept or accessible, it's worth pointing that out as well.
  • Talk about it! Probably the most important thing of all is to get the conversations going (from whatever perspectives interest you.) It’s surprising what good conversations you can have over dinner!!! 

I am continually on the lookout for ways to expand Loo Tours and to make what I do useful as well as entertaining, so if you think I can be of help in any way, or have a story that you think needs to be shared don't hesitate to get in touch!

Thank you!

Some Links mentioned during the Q&A:

I have a select list of toilet maps and apps on my website at: http://lootours.com/london/maps.html
For those interested in the Radar key scheme, information can be found at: