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
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 (

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.