Friday, February 28, 2014

Poonami: Disaster as entertainment

Fascinating to follow the events of yesterday evening:

A sewage leak in South London has sparked waves of interest, largely due to the nature of the coverage. On twitter two hashtags are trending: #Londonpoo and #poonami. Those not directly involved are having a ball making puns about the "shitty situation" and "mind the crap" announcements on the underground.

Now Hear This (a London news entertainment and culture blog for Time Out) has just picked it up. And this is what interests me the most. It has become entertainment. London's most exciting event of yesterday. And this is what interests me most.

Why do we have so much fun with this? The chance to make a big deal out of a "crappy disaster" is irrationally pleasing (I admit even to me.)

And, maybe more telling, why this case in particular?

The answer I think is partly that we don't perceive it as a disaster... which at the moment it isn't. The sentiment seems to be that it is a bit of flooding that may ruin a few carpets, but no homes will be destroyed, and the people there are affluent enough to deal with it ("aren't there a few politicians living near there? How fitting!") Okay, and maybe pose a few health risks. It is, after all, raw sewage.

Water main bursts in Kennington ©GeneralBoles

Somehow it gets more attention than the world-wide state of sanitation, where some people are living in a constant state of poo-nami. Children who walk through diseased open-defication grounds, tracking particles of fecal matter into the house, getting it on their hands, which in turn touches the food that goes into their mouths.

For those who haven't already seen it, Rose George's TedTalk 'Let's Talk Crap. Seriously.' sums up very neatly the short leap from a joke to a serious life threatening state of affairs.

What interests me is not getting rid of the joke. Keep it!!! It is not only part of how people deal with a challenge, but has got the event far wider coverage than a serious news story could ever do!

The million dollar question is can the humour and irreverence be leveraged to create genuine awareness and get people working on an issue. Or is is inherently dismissive? It's almost the sort of thing that the World Toilet Organization and Toilet Hackers work with. It would be interesting to see one of them adopt the phrase and see how far they could run with it!

There's a lot going on in Urinetown

After long long months of waiting I have finally seen Urinetown UK. It didn't disappoint and gave me perhaps even more food for though than I had expected! This isn't a review of the production, but yet more musings on the story and construction of the show.

Urinetown is one of those musicals that gets better on the second (or third or twentieth) hearing... there are jokes and references embedded very subtly, and perhaps because this production picked up things that I had previously missed (while missing a few that I love) this was driven home today. The more you know the more you think. And laugh. And worry. And laugh more.

One fascinating thing about it is what is isn't. It is decidedly not toilet humour. That isn't to say that it isn't very funny. Or that there isn't plenty of talk about toilets. And even humorous talk about toilets... but not your bog standard piss taking (if you will.) That said, there is one toilet pun. It is so cleverly hidden that almost no one hears it (Hint... listen for the "wee-wee" it's in the first song.)
The bodily fluid that features most prominently is, despite the title, blood.

Here are just a few of the onion-like layers that make up Urinetown. Most of them I have (or will) expand on more in other posts.

Socio-economics and Crowds

It is extra poignant if you understand Thomas Malthus' Principal of Population:
The increase of the population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence.
The population invariably increases when the means of subsistence increase.
The supperior power of population is repressed and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence by misery and vice. 
If you understand this it will make the continual references to bunnies mean a whole lot more. There are plenty of ideas of crowd theory, the mentality of masses, to the extent that you could probably write an honour-winning dissertation bringing in Gustav Le Bon (A Study of the Popular Mind) if you were so inclined. I'm not sure I would recommend that because spending too much time buried in those theories might well lead one to severe depression, disappear over the future of humanity, and voluntary exile to Urinetown. But you could.

The politics of toilets 

Toilet closures and fees effect us all, and almost everyone can probably empathize with not wanting to pay. While Urinetown is, in many ways, anti-fees (the premise on which the musical is based!) But it doesn't suggest that getting rid of fees will make the world a happier place... indeed it actually points to a strong case for keeping them. Moderation in all things may, by virtue of its absence, be a message of Urinetown. (see previous post on Charging fees as we please.)

"The Stink Years"

In 1858 after centuries of unorganized sanitation the Thames heated up and smelled so bad that MP's in the newly opened houses of parliament could only meet behind heavily curtained windows with scented handkerchiefs over their noses. It was known as "The Great Stink." That's why London has it's mighty sewer system (in dire need of updating, but still one of the largest in the world!)

"The stink years" come up a lot in Urinetown... the time before the private companies took over to regulate. So history buffs can chuckle appreciatively at that one.

Water Shortages

The world is eventually going to run out of clean water. Probably sooner than any of us like to think. And we still use it like there is no tomorrow, flushing a third of it down the toilet each day in the UK. Long-term sustainable solutions are being developed, but whether they will ever catch on is anybodies guess. It could well take another Great Stink to scare us into action.

Longer blog post on this to come soon. 

 It's just plain fun!!!

You can also ignore everything that is written above.

Just enjoy the musical, bunnies, blood and all. It's funny in and of itself. Bunnies are cute. Peeing on the street is yucky. Monopolizing corporations are evil. Surprises are generally unexpected.

And the music is so happy!!!


Urinetown plays at St James Theatre 22 Feb - 3 May 2014.
Go see it! You'll be glad you did!

A checklist of things to look for: 
  • The "wee-wee" joke
  • Sweeney Todd reference 
  • Billy Elliot reference (Which I think was a Les Miz reference in the original production) 
  • References to "The Stink Years" and public health acts.  
  • Lost opportunities for breast jokes (obviously the director and costumer are more tasteful than I am.)  
  • Count how many times bunnies are mentioned or appear.   

Friday, February 21, 2014

LaviTOURism: A trip to Amsterdam

When you’ve only got four hours in a city you’ve got to prioritize what you want to see. Of course that meant my stopover in Amsterdam focused almost exclusively on public toilets.

I had gone with a particular mission in mind: to visit  2TheLoo, the flagship location for the concept of the ‘toilet store.’

Kalverstraat 126, 1012 PK Amsterdam, The Netherlands
It works like this: You pay a euro to use the loo. On entry you get a voucher which you can then redeem for 50p in the shop out front. The voucher can also be used at a variety of other locations (which for Amsterdam include Madam Tussaud’s, the Amsterdam Dungeons and Shell stations.)

I went in anonymously to start with and paid my Euro for the loo. It was everything it promised to be. I did actually accidentally go in the men’s side to begin with, and quickly realized my mistake. I used the cubicle plastered in images of Nightwatch.

The pros: You are guaranteed a clean plesant toilet (with wifi access, which I am ashamed to admit I may have taken advantage of in order to get my one and only e-mail check of the day… before I actually used the loo, thank you very much!!! There wasn’t any other obvious place to sit and use the free wifi.) Plus it’s entertaining. In the shop you can buy everything from the quirky (toilet brush that looks like a microphone) to the tasteless (toilet shot glasses) to the practical (feminine hygiene products) to the delicious (a variety of sweets, hot chocolate and coffee)

The cons: It ain’t free. Though the fee is comparable to what you’ll find in most other nearby locations. Because of the shop it’s also slightly more confusing of a process. What with taking the ticket as you go through the stalls. The attendant seemed on top of making sure people got that step.

At 4 o’clock I  had arranged a meeting with Violet, the Marketing Executive from the shop. She was friendly as can be, and showed me around all the different stalls, including the family cubicle, which has a child size toilet, a baby change, and… here’s the best part: a disco ball. It also had very large emus on the walls.

Viva stall (for a media partner) 
The last stall on the end
The most colourful stall
My favorite stall
Family stall with a disco ball
Violet told me that they now have 120 stores in 10 countries and are continuing to grow. They are very much about building the brand. The founder, Eric Treuniet, was co-owner of a sports marketing agency, while his partner Almar Holtz was merchandising director for Walt Disney and the big-business background apparent in the mentality behind the shops. They aim big and fun. The stores are generally found at petrol stations, shopping centers and high streets. Shell is a major partner in 6 of their countries of operation. And all because Eric was out shopping one day with his wife and Children in Belgium and struggled to find a decent loo.

I also got to chat a bit with the attendant, who knew his business both with sales and cleaning. Today was a quiet day, he said, with only about 120 people so far. On good days they get closer to 2000.  Loos (like many other tourist attractions) are a weather dependant business. 

The attendant talked about the importance of being a friendly face for the shop, making sure that people get into the loos efficiently, and know where everything is. His skill was evidenced by the fact that during the five minutes or so we were talking he still managed to accept payments, return several rogue coupons to their owners, prevent a couple ladies from making my mistake of going into the gents, and wishing everyone “too-da-loo” as they left. George Jennings would have been proud!

In all my lavatorial adventures I have come across nothing else quite like it. But it has been envisioned by others. In the Good Loo Guide Jonathan Routh actually calls for an Entrepreneur like Richard Branson to take the challenge of a high-street chain of shops! Richard Branson hasn’t got there yet (Virgin toilets?) but 2theloo may not be too far from what Routh had in mind. It has character, it is attended, it is clean… everything a toileteer might wish for.  

I left with a lot to think about.

I also left with Loois and Looisa, the two plushy dolls who are part of the children’s branding of the shop. Aside from being able to buy them, you can follow their adventures on facebook all around the world.

Mine had breakfast with me on the train to Copenhagen the next morning.

Those two (and the whole concept really) bring me to another potential huge benefit to the model: Familiarity. We look for it in a lot of brands from hotels to coffee shops, which is why international chains are so successful. There’s safety in what you know.

But up until now I know of no other international brand in the public toilet world (manufacturers, yes… but they aren’t the public face… and you wouldn’t decide to go into one toilet over another based on the knowledge that there is an Armitage Shanks vs. a Kholer. ) Some people, especially children, get severe anxiety about using un-familiar toilets. So for them an international brand could mean greater levels of comfort abroad. There hasn’t been a scientific study on this as far as I know. But it would be interesting to see the findings if there ever was!

The rest of the time in Amsterdam I spent looking at what other alternatives the city had to offer. The pickings were pretty lean.

The famous green Urinals, which aren’t much use to ladies.

Some closed and locked orange 'Bio Boxes'

In the shopping center the Loo was through a café and had a 0.40 euro charge. It didn’t look promising enough that I wanted to spend the money.

McDonalds had an interesting approach: in the stores that didn’t have toilets they put directions to the nearest one.

Lastly a non-toilet, but on a related subject I came across a wonderful inscription on an impressive looking archway:

Homo Sapiens Non Urinat In Ventum: Man should not piss in the wind.

I have the Toilet Guru to thank for this one. His blog offers the story that this was the result of frustration with the beurocracy of city councilors. They decided to add the inscription just to see if it would slip through, and got lucky. Who knows if it’s true. In any case, it is a lovely monument!

My one regret of the trip is missing the loos at Homegrown Fantasy Café, which reportedly are florescent. It wasn’t open when I went by, and I had some trepidation about going into an establishment  which deals primarily in substances of which I don’t partake, so I chickened out on going back later. Probably my loss.

But maybe that is something to keep on the list for next time (along with all the museums that I missed!)  To mis-quote Aussi (hair products): "there's more to life than toilets... but they're a good place to start!"


A Postscript: Eric Treurinet tragically passed away in a car accident several weeks before my visit to Amsterdam. One of the many memorials to him can be found here

Monday, February 17, 2014

Embrace the toilet!

There was a fascinating article in the Daily Mail today about Firstsite, a new multi-million £ Art Gallery in Colchester which has been labled 'the most expensive toilet' due to the fact that an estimated 54% of its visitors spend less than two minutes, popping in for the sole purpose of a visit to the loo.

I don't know much about it at present (keen to learn more) but here are some initial thoughts and reactions:

1) If the building is useful as a public toilet, then I hope they will embrace the fact! It does a credit to them! I fear that after an article like this, which has a pretty condescending tone, the instinctive reaction will often be to start restricting access, or shutting the facilities down. Mad props to them for thus far providing what is a much needed service! Surely there are ways they can benefit... in toilet advertising, extending gallery exhibitions to the loo... the possibilities go on and on!

2) I hope Colchester will take it on board! The council currently has only 12 public loos. The nearest to Firstsite seems to be Lion Walk (presumably in the shopping center?) It could be mutually beneficial for the gallery to get some council support in exchange for publicity. Make use of facilities that are already there, and presumably accessible.

3) I wonder if this is something Heritage Lottery (who funded the project) might be able to use in the future. The numbers indicate people want toilets. While 2.8 million wouldn't go a hugely long way you could do some good. Not only are toilets a noble part of British Heritage... providing new ones allows people to continue to appreciate it!

4) Cities have various social requirements for their buildings... some have a public art requirement, for example, requiring new constructions to enrich the landscape in some way. Why not a public toilet requirement, using already existing structures to provide service? That said, I am not generally a fan of that sort of sweeping legislation, because no matter how you slice it there is no one size fits all solution that will be appropriate for every community, let alone every building. Things are more successful when people want to do them, rather than grudgingly provide the bare required minimum.

Lots of food for thought.

Somewhat topically, later this week I am going to be visiting 2TheLoo in Amsterdam who are pioneers in the concept of Restroom Shops. I am very much looking forward to learning more about how they work, and will, of course, be posting when I do!

You can Visit Firstsite's website here to find out about the cool stuff they offer (besides toilets)
You can read the original article here.

Monday, February 3, 2014

"Charging fees as we please" right or wrong?

Pay-per-go toilets come from a long, if not noble tradition. We may whinge about prices which can get up to a Euro across much of Europe. So the first in my Urinetown related series takes a quick look at the history of paying to pee, and reflects (okay... opines...) on the nature of the cash flow through toilet doors.

In Urinetown Mr. Cladwell is the bigh-shot business man who has struck gold and "made flushing mean flush in the bank." In the end it turns out despite his greed he is possibly one of the more ecologically aware characters in the story, but we'll leave that for another time.

For now, here he is as we first meet him:

When in Rome... 

In AD 69 Emperor Vespasian inherited a Rome with a drained treasury, and looked for any and every opportunity to turn the financial situation around. He came up with a clever plan. Not only could people be charged for the privilege of using the toilets… they could also be taxed for the privilege of cleaning them! Urine was a valuable resource, primarily for tanning and dying (but also bleaching of teeth.) When his son, Titus, objected to this practice he ordered the boy to sniff a coin. Does it smell bad? No!

"Pecunia non olet." 
"Money doesn’t stink."

We don't know a great deal more about how much the tax may have been or how is was collected. We do know that other than the Urine Tax Vespasian was a reasonably popular and generous man. But urinals in france and Italy are, even to this day, referred to as vespasiennes or vespasiani

Medieval Scotland...

Fast forward a few centuries and people are still making a living from the relief business. In the streets of Medieval and Tudor Scotland if you had to go you would find the man wandering the streets with a bucket and cloak crying “Who wants me for a bawbee?” Pay the man your bawbee (a half penny) and you could put the cloak round you for privacy while you availed yourself of the bucket. What he then did with the contents I am not sure.

Common Decency...

Come the Victorian Era: A golden age of public necessary conveniences (for some in any case.) The most famous man to provide these conveniences was George Jennings, a Brighton Plumber. For the Great Exhibition of 1851 he initiated the installation of conveniences for both Gentlemen and Ladies in the Chrystal Palace in Hyde Park. For a penny entrance fee. There was skepticism. He later said “I was told people would not come to the Crystal Palace to wash their hands.” 

The skeptics proved wrong. The toilets were a massive success, and were used by 827,280 visitors during the course of the exhibition, raking in £2441. (Notice the math doesn’t add up? There are 240 pence to a Victorian pound. But that still leaves about £1006 unaccounted for. This is because due to anatomical differences that allow men a more ready relief than women Urinals were provided for fee, while women had to pay out every time. Of the profits £2,084 was earned from female visitors. But gendered politics is a lengthy subject itself, so we shall move on…)

This inspired the Society of Arts to provide wider accommodation ‘to alleviate the sufferings that must be endured.’ Their next project, however, though approached enthusiastically was as massive a failure as the first had been a success. Though they placed advertisements in the times and distributed 50,000 handbills for their Gentlemen’s loos on Fleet Street the first month brought only 58 visitors.

For the rest of his life Jennings petitioned city councils to build conveniences, only asking in return that he be allowed to charge a small entrance fee to cover the cost of an attendant and maintenance. But is was not until the 1880’s (shortly after his death) that his dream became a reality, and London’s popular underground conveniences began to appear across city. 

Going Automatic...

Another potential origin of Spending a Penny are automatic coin operated toilets which were invented in the late 18th Century by the stage magician John Nevil Maskelyne. His lock was used until at least the 1950's in Britain. 

Modern Day

Throughout the UK most public toilets cost between £0.30 and £0.50 depending on the council and the operating company. A victorian penny has the purchasing power of between £0.25 and £0.50 in modern money. So in that regard fees have pretty well moved with inflation. The service you will get for that price ranges vastly, from a fresh clean stall to a dirty toilet-paper-less cell that leaves you feeling worse than when you went in. You probably won't be offered a comb and a clean towel as you would have in the monkey closets of 1851. But aren't you otherwise glad you don't live in 1851? So it's probably worth that small sacrifice! 

But is it right? 

Don't get me wrong: I'm not a fan of paying to pee. But... I also feel a sense of civic duty to understand what I am or am not paying for. So here are my own thoughts on the pay-to-pee situation:

In some ways it is odd that we take freely available public toilets as a right. While we expect our other needs to be met, we would never dream of marching into Starbucks and demanding a free coffee and sandwich because we were hungry. It is our responsibility either to eat at home before we leave, or be prepared to pay. 

The need to go can be felt more suddenly and urgently than the need to eat. Toilets are a distress purchase.  And generally, while you can bring a packed lunch, hauling your own toilet around is a taller order. Presumably part of the reason we pay taxes is so that our local councils... but it's still up to people to make their voices heard if toilets are what they want.

One thing I see happening frequently is the problem of communication. Usually complaints are aimed the wrong people. The best place to see this is probably the Facebook page for the Jubiloo (For a bit more background on the business model of the Jubiloo, I have written previously about the subject in "The Politics of Privatized Peeing".)  Absolute transparency in comments and responses. Some people say it's well worth it, while others deem it "A bloody rip-off." When people question the rates the company responds pretty consistently: It costs them money to run the service. There is no legal obligation for councils to provide, and so we have to depend in many areas on private corporations.

And companies, though they may be socially minded, have every right to say to rude customers "if you don't like it, you can take your business (in every sense) elsewhere." (Pro tip: in the case of the Jubiloo this would be the South Bank Center, 2 minutes walk away, where you can go absolutely free. I may be a fare dodger, but I have earned it, by doing my research! Use the Jubiloo though. They're still one of the cheapest attractions you'll find in London!)

I sometimes think the situation of the harangued toilet providers is not so different from that of the countless numbers of actors, musicians and speakers who have endured being invited to perform for free for the exposure, for dinner, for beer.

The situation feels a bit like this (only for toilets):

See also an interesting blog that picks this idea apart a bit more
in terms of delivering and receiving value. 

So if you want free toilets, follow your heart and fight for it! But do your homework to find out what and who you are fighting. Because chances are they are not smarmy money grubbing men in flashy suites and flashier offices at all, but hard working down-to-earth folks want exactly what you do. They are likely equally as frustrated if not more so by the lack of government support. After all, they get to spend their careers being frustrated, while the chance is that your frustration only occurs during the times you are digging through your pockets for change to use the facilities. Most companies are members of the British Toilet Association, who are interested in exactly these sorts of problems (though not necessarily anti-fee themselves.) They're worth following, and sending your opinions to.

But these toilet providers also have to make a living. So cut them a bit of slack! Someone has to pay for you to pee!

This post is part of my Urinetown inspired series (though not associated with or endorsed by the creators)
The musical plays at St James Theatre 22 Feb - 3 May 2014.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

What *is* Urinetown?

It is just 20 days until Urintown: The Musical opens at St James Theatre! Needless to say, I am beyond excited to see two of my favorite subjects (toilets and musical theatre) come together in one place! I don't know what to expect from the production. It has the potential to be many things. But I know that I am going to enjoy it.

I also know that whether the show itself taps into the political landscape or not, there couldn't be a better time and place for it socially and politically. There are a lot of people pushing the toilet (shall we say 'sanitation?' agenda. The phenomenal Rose George with her "talk shit" campaign. The young hip Toilet Hackers, an American group trying to "make sanitation sexy" through high profile fundraising parties, and international projects. Bill and Melinda Gates, funding Entrepreneurs to "re-invent the toilet."And of course Jack Sim and the World Toilet Organisation.

The first time I ever interacted with Jack was in a twitter exchange that he has probably long forgotten. Urinetown came up:
JackWTO: UK has been closing down public toilets to save money. Now they go to McDonalds and pubs + pay toilets, like UrineTown 
Me: yes, toilets controlled by evil corporations! How do we achieve toilet democracy? to do that we have to get people interested...
JackWTO: Everyone wants a clean free toilet. Singapore have laws that all businesses open their toilets to public. It works very well

The question continues to fascinate me. How do we create an environment where people can, as the musical so eloquently puts it "pee for free whenever they like, as much as they like, for as long as they like, with whomever they like?"

The first step is to get people talking. Jack is a show man and brilliant at getting people to do that. But there are avenues even he hasn't reached yet.

In an ideal world Urinetown would bring an opportunity to do just that. To start using theatre (and good quality theatre at that!) to get people interested in topics they never even thought to think on. I know that theatre isn't the answer to everything (much as I like to believe it is) but it is a jolly good start!

I admit that I am completely biased by the fact that I did my master's in Applied Theatre, which, very loosely, is the study of theatre that seeks to make a significant social impact. Most academics go a step further and classify it as 'theatre done with non-actors in non-traditional theatre spaces.' Truth be told, I couldn't care less about the label, but I know things: I like good theatre and I like theatre that says something important. I think people are more likely to care if they are entertained.

But if no one else is going to talk about it in this context, then I can at least spew my thoughts here. My head is full of programme notes I would write, conversations I would like to start, and awareness projects I would like to develop.

 So over the next couple weeks I'll be working on short series of reflections on the theme of 'What is Urinetown?' I think it is lots of things. A tool. An allegory. A warning. Hope. And, on top of all that, brilliant piece of musical theatre!

Next Up: "Charging fees as we please is alright, it's not wrong!" (is it?) A Two-thousand-year-old debate!


Urinetown plays at St James Theatre 22 Feb - 3 May 2014.

This blog is in no way associated with or endorsed by the creators.
But you should still go see the musical.
And tell me what you think!

If you aren't lucky enough to live in London, listen to the recording.
You'll be glad you did!