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.

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.