Monday, August 31, 2015

Edinburgh reflection: Felicity Ward: What if there is no toilet?

Felicity Ward returns with a new stand-up show about mental illness, irritable bowel syndrome and her search for the nearest toilet. Anxiety can be cruel, but very, very funny.

As we entered the theatre there was a toilet centre stage flanked by two symmetrical pyramids of toilet paper. Taylor Swift music was playing and several people around me were singing along.

Felicity is a powerhouse of energy and humour. She talks with just the right amount of graphicness about what it's like to have Iritable Bowel Syndrome ("I call it a closing down sale... everything must go!") and associated anxiety, interspersed with musings on her family, dominos pizza, late night radio, hairless cats, and religion. She had us all on our feet singing and dancing to "Father Abraham had many sons. I am one of them, and so are you."

Felicity said very near the beginning of the show that if anyone needed to go out and use the toilet during it that was cool. A couple people did and were suitably praised for their efforts.

The fear of having to go to the bathroom and there not being one available is something most of us can probably relate to. "Go when you can, not when you need to" has been a family motto for as long as I can remember ("mio cum opportunis, non cum debeo" in Latin, since I think that's the traditional language of family mottos!) If you have a bladder or bowel condition though this anxiety can pretty easily become extreme... failing to find a toilet will result in more than just temporary discomfort.

Laughing about something vs. laughing it off

One of the questions I am interested in researching in my theoretically-might-happen-some-day PhD in toiletolegy is where humour is useful and where it becomes destructive. As George Bernard Shaw wrote:

“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… And the consequence is that everything that must not be mentioned in public is mentioned in private as a naughty joke.” (The Unmentionable Case for Women's Sufferage, 1910)

The implication here is that these "naughty jokes" are a bad thing because they allow the issues at hand to be brushed off without having been solved. It's an avoidance tactic. But Shaw himself uses humour and parody very successfully to engage his readers and audiences in all manner of social and moral dilemmas.

More than anything else, this "research" gives me an excuse to watch a lot of comedy!

I saw a handful of comedians performing at the Fringe. Some because I knew people, and some of it because I was handed flyers and it looks interesting. One because there was an exploding ice cream cone on the flier (which was false advertising because there was no ice cream, exploding or otherwise in the show... I'd have demanded my money back if it hadn't been free!)

It's well-accepted that stand-up comedy isn't for the easily offended. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't judge what is tasteful or not. Which of course is subjective, and there's probably an audience for everything. It should be noted, I hasten to add, that I consider conversations about bowel movements at dinner time to be the height of intellectual entertainment, so we're not talking about taste in terms of what Miss Manners might approve here.

For me the biggest thing that makes something funny instead of tacky is the comedian's ability to talk about things they are intimately familiar with. I don't think this means you can't make jokes about things outside your realm of experience, but there's a level of respect that makes it funnier. It's easy to get a quick gross-out laugh out of a joke about someone wetting or shitting themselves in a way that makes fun of the perpetrator with no sympathy to spare.

Laughter is a powerful tool that can both bond and segregate. To be laughed at can be highly pleasurable or incredibly painful.

Felicity didn't shy away from the grit. She talked about how you don't ever really get rid of mental illness... you just learn to manage it (one of the most profound "I never thought of it like that, but it makes total sense" take-aways for me.) There are still good days and bad days. And IBS is not a pretty thing to live with. But there was still a level of gleeful acceptance in the way she recounts the awkward stories of her life, the nagging voice in her hear ( who she calls "Beryl")

I wonder if laughter might be one of the keys to coming out of the closet for IBS sufferers. I have had at least three couples on my Loo Tour (one the day before their wedding!) who came because embracing the humour of the central role that toilets played in their lives had been a key to living fully again.

Check out Felicity's other work here:

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Edinburgh Reflection: Adventures in Menstruating with Chella Quint

What is that blue stuff… and why isn’t it red? Will all the menstruators performing at the Fringe really synchronise cycles? Really? And how can century-old ads still affect attitudes now? For everything you never knew you needed to know about periods, there’s comedian and sex educator Chella Quint. As heard on Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, she deconstructs taboos with wit, adbusting and brute force. Period comedy for menstruators and non-menstruators of all genders. 

I met Chella Quint on the high street handing out felt stains and getting people to take selfies as part of a 'flashblob' for her Period Positive project. Even though my Edinburgh evening was already scheduled tightly and her show was way across town I knew I couldn't miss it. It seemed like it was meant to be- It had been my day of the month to be miserable and achy, and the only thing keeping me from crawling up in a ball and wallowing in self pity was pure festival adrenaline (pity that can't be bottled... it's much more effective than ibuprofen!) 

I have written a bit about menstruation before as it's closely related to toileting, not just because of the anatomical proximity of where the respective fluids come out, but because a) we often deal with it in the toilet, and b) many of the same issues of same and secrecy apply to keep people from talking about it in a productive way. In fact, as taboos go menstruation seems to be far more taboo than most any other bodily function you could think of.

The Edinburgh performance was quite autobiographical, as Chella introduced us to her research and her current practice. It was also participatory: we played a version of twister, we did an interpretive dance about types of menstrual hygiene products (Internal/external, disposable/reusable!) we tried on 1950's pads with belts. We got badges for participation. And we laughed a lot as the puns flowed freely.

Chella has a gleeful "love to hate" response to some of the absolutely preposterous statements that advertising campaigns used to make (... oh wait... and still are making!) about how women should shroud their periods in secrecy and let anyone see or smell evidence. Even the trappings are meant to be disguised.

Compare this modess advertisement from 1949:

To the lil-lets bags and boxes with easily removable labels "To make them nice and discreet"

Discretion of course has its time and place. Nobody is proposing that we waltz through the streets chanting pagan hymns and waving bloody tampons in people's faces. The problem is not with the fact that people may wish to be discreet, but those who shame them into thinking they must... and too often this shame is played upon and intensified by marketeers. And this leads us to the Period Positive message (the following is stolen directly from the website)

"What does period positive mean? 
"Chella developed #PeriodPositive to counteract the mainly negative public discourse. She accepts that people both love and hate periods, but tries to unpick how big an influence the media plays in these attitudes. She aims for ‘period neutral’, using a positive approach. 
"If you are period positive, this means you are willing to confidently ask and/or frankly answer questions about periods, understand the importance for menstruators to chart their cycle and treat it as a vital sign, avoid passing on shame to others, and if you joke about it, that you make sure menstruators aren’t the butt of the joke."
She also has a wonderful list of creative fun ways to work against taboos using the tools of the enemy (consumerism!) My favorite is StainsTM, a line of trendy products which menstruators and non-menstruators can wear to reclaim the stains that we are taught to be so embarrassed by, turning them into objects of desire. I feel like there's milage for a project runway challenge in this (if Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn don't jump on it, then perhaps it could start local?) Surely period fashion would be the perfect accompaniment to period drama?

This one actually did get mocked for looking
like a bloody tampon
Here's a start of a mood board (though we can get much more creative than this!)
Image source
Image Source
Anyway, that's my fantasy for the moment (it's 2:30am in Edinburgh, so this may or may not seem like such a good idea in the morning.)

Finally, I have to share a song about pads by the incomparable Evalyn Parry:

Doubly relevant (if only to me) because I had to slip out of Chella's show slightly before the end to dash across town to the Hub to see a concert of music composed by Evalyn's brother Richard Reed Parry. His music of course was rather different (and nothing to do with pads, tampons, periods or toilets.) But I like random coincidences all the same. 

For those who read this blog to see what I'm up to as well as for the toilet/bodily function related stuff, here's the preview of Wave Movements. It was a beautiful change of pace from the rest of the day. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Edinburgh Reflection: Eau de Toilette

Img Source: Edinburgh Fringe Website

One woman. And a toilet. ‘It may appear that I am staring into toilet water. And I am staring into toilet water. But what I am seeing is not toilet water. What I am seeing is an ocean…’

Eau de Toilette is a charming solo show about "a melancholy toilet attendant trapped in the lavatorie of commission-based despair." The show, which comes in at slightly under a half hour, weaves together monologues, dance, projections and Disney princess songs to create a bizarre dreamworld of a toilet.

The character was an immigrant of unspecified origin who had dreamed of toilets as a little girl and come to this country in search of one. Five years later still in the toilet, where the lights don't work and the plumbing backs up, she finds that the dream wasn't quite all it was cracked up to be. "You can choose to smell the perfume or you can choose to smell the shit." With her table of lollypops and perfumes she playes off all the classic phrases of the infamous (usually male) nightclub toilet attendants: "No armanni, no punani," "No spray, no lay," and so on and so forth (there's a comprehensive list here.)

The huge toilet seat on the wall behind her opened to reveal a projection screen that showed not just the occasionally unsavory contents of the toilet but hopes and dreams of places far away... to which she literally flushed herself at the end while singing "part of your world" from the little mermaid, having just emerged from a most ingenious mermaid tail of paper towels.

After the show I got to chat briefly with Emily Bee, the writer and performer. She told me that it started when she was writing in a kebab shop and got obsessed with the toilets. She also said me that she often gets cast as an immigrant, so she wanted to reclaim that role and make it her own... a bit Borat, but less slapstick.

The piece is quite fun as the surreal experience it currently is, but there would be a lot of potential for this piece to develop into something quite political. When she talked early in the piece about growing up dreaming about the toilet I was half expecting it to delve deeper into global sanitation... the country-less immigrant could easily be one of the 2.5 billion still waiting for access to proper sanitation, going out to do her business in the fields at 3am so as not to be seen. There are copious opportunities to look at the taken-for-granted status of the toilet and how its users consequently treat it.

At one point the character wistfully speaks of having been engaged to be married, which made me think of India's No Loo, No I Do campaign... perhaps she chose a toilet (and no husband) over a husband with no toilet? Come to think of it, "No Loo, no I do" almost sounds like one of those nightclub toilet attendant phrases.

It's playing for one more day at the fringe... but would be well deserving of a revival for World Toilet Day in November!

Image source: Twitter @IAmEmilyBee


Thistle King James (Venue 438)
15:00 through 29 August

Thursday, August 27, 2015

York's Roman Bathhouse

York's Roman Bathhouse, which claims to be the city's oldest attraction is tucked away under a pub in the corner of Sampson's square. It's a cozy little museum that takes less than 15 minutes to visit, but well worth every penny of the £3.50 entry fee.

The bathhouse was part of a roman fortress and would have been used primarily by Roman soldiers from about 300AD through the 600's.

It was discovered in the 1930's during renovations on the upstairs pub, which had suffered fire damage in 1929. In 2003 it opened to the public as the cozy little museum it is today. Archeologists estimate that there are probably a further 9000 square meters of the bath house still buried, but excavation in the near future is unlikely.

I talked yesterday about the full toileting experience... the Romans certainly took this to the extreme. One sign in the exhibit (which went into great detail about how the Romans wiped their bottoms with communal sponges on sticks) claimed that in at least one toilet a platform for musicians had been discovered, though the guide wasn't able to tell me anything more about this.

The Baths

The main part of the museum is the CALADRIUM, the hot steam room, where you can see the remains of the pool and the foundations which supported it over the steam chamber. The water was heated by means of a furnace underneath which warmed the stone floor so soldiers had to wear wooden clogs to keep from burning their feet.

The TEPIDARIUM contained a warm bath, heated in a similar manner to the Caladrium.

Finally the FRIGIDIUM did pretty much what it sounds like... it was the cold bath in which to cool off at the end of the process.

The Sewers

The bathhouse was connected to a sewer network, the remains of which can still be found around the corner on Church Street. Sadly these are not open to the public, though descriptions paint lively pictures of Vaulted roofs and red and green sandstone. After the Romans sewers seemed to have disappeared from York until the 1830's, but not a great deal of information is readily accessible. There's a bit of roman history here.

Explorers in the Sewers.

The roman spongia served the same function as toilet paper.
They were rinsed in vinegar or sour wine between uses. 

After the Bath House I wandered the wall, which is obligatory on any visit to York. It took me to the Richard III museum, the highlight of which, of course was the Gardrobe (a reminded of what people did during the un-sewered period.)

Gardrobe in the tower

The view from the York Wall

Onwards to Edinburgh!!!

Related Posts:

The York Historic Toilet Tour, September 2014

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

2theloo London: A return to victorian gentility!

Photo Credit: Amber Raney-Kincade
2theloo is a unique concept... the world's first toilet shop which aims to be a 'better than at home' toilet. On entering the facility you pay at the turnstile, but receive a voucher which can then be spent either at their own shop or in a partner business. I visited their pilot store in Amsterdam in 2014 (Read that blog post here.) They have been taking Europe by storm with over 200 venues opened since 2011, and now they have reached the UK.

Today marked the official opening of their new site in Covent Garden. The venue is neatly tucked inside two arches (one for gents one for ladies) on the lower ground floor of the market. 

I attended the launch party along with Amber, one of my loo ladies. In case you ever wondered, the launch party for a toilet involves canapes, drinks, and a ribbon cutting ceremony with short speeches by dignitaries humorously declaring that this is an honour because they have never opened a toilet before (this last is the most obligatory.) In this case it was Margriet Leemhuis, Deputy Head of Mission at the Dutch Embassy in London. Also present was Almar Holtz, one of the founders of the company (who has presumably opened lots of toilets!) In his brief address he told us that the Covent Garden location had been one of the final goals for his business partner Eric Treurniet, who tragically died in a car accident in early 2014. So this was truly a momentous day for the company. 

In a way, 2theloo represents a return to the civic pride that Victorian entrepreneurs like George Jennings took in their facilities. In 1851 when what are often lauded as Britain's first public toilets were opened at the Chrystal Palace 'spending a penny' got you not just a receptacle in which to do your business but a guaranteed pleasant place to freshen up, a towel, a comb and even a shoe shine. One's toilet, after all, traditionally included the whole process of washing and dressing before it became the euphemism it is today. Since the early 1900's public facilities have devolved somewhat. Indeed, many make it a point to get users in an out as quickly as possible, designing environments that are just tolerable enough to visit without being so hospitable that you'll want to hang around longer than strictly necessary. 

When 2theloo state 'It's our mission to make the absolute most of your toilet break,' they mean what they say. The facility is pleasant and clean and each cubicle is decorated with pictures of Covent Garden. The washbasins look like they belong in a posh hotel, and the ladies side has a seprate area for freshening up makeup. There are baby change facilities in both the ladies and the gents. 

A visit to the Covent Garden 2theLoo costs 70p, and the machine even dispenses change... a rarity for UK public toilets! The facility is open 10am-9pm daily. If you go try to make sure you enter on the correct side (the 'Gents' and 'Ladies' markings are subtle.)

Amber and I are very much looking forward to introducing it as a new highlight of the London Loo Tour!

Photo Credit: Amber Raney-Kincade

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Form and function: Poo!

This is possibly the most frivolous post I have ever written, but I got the perfect dress for my birthday! It's comfy, slightly 50's looking, and covered in subtle poop emojis. 

The website of BetaBrand reads:
"if you are a refined woman — a thoughtful, sophisticated woman — for whom form and function are like lovers inexorably intertwined in a sultry garden of orchids at dusk, then, by all means, we invite you to order this turd-covered dress.
I continually say that toilets, and consequently related things like poop, should be classy. It needn't be rubbed in people's faces (literally or figuratively) but creating a culture where people feel comfortable talking about it will go a long way towards solving a multitude of our current problems around health and hygiene.

It has actually been a fairly poop-centric week for me professionally. A few days ago I had a lovely conversation with Shawn Shafter, the creator of The POOP Project. Shawn is an artist and educator who has spent the last five years making poop fun. In some ways we came to the subject from opposite ends. I started with infrastructure: the physical spaces where we do the deed, while he comes from the personal: how we feel about it and what we do with it. He ties it to body positivity, environment and community.

More on poop soon. Meantime some exciting links:

The Poo Emoji Dress can be found here: 

And gents don't need to feel left out, because there's a shirt too! 

And high top shoes for everyone!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

This Week in Toilets

I have spent the past two months fully immersed in theatre, and as a result haven't had much opportunity to think about toilets (other than the obligatory personal visits of course!) But now my time is becoming more my own again and I'm ready to plunge back in. I've missed being the Loo Lady. Starting to become too normal for comfort.

I may have been on hiatus, but the world of toilets keeps on running, so here are the two interesting local toilet news stories of the week:

San Francisco has just painted its first pee proof walls. 

The urine-resistant paint is designed to repel the stream of Urine and send it back at the offender. The idea was pioneered in St. Pauli Germany and has now made its way to nine walls in San Francisco (though SF doesn't seem to have adopted the "We Pee Back" signs that the Germans posted.) So far reports are favorable in terms of a decrease in open urination on those particular walls, but what the larger effect will be only time will tell: You can't paint every wall in the city, and people still have to go somewhere!

Read More Here

San Francisco Mayoral Candidate Running on Poo Platform

One of the city's coolest bloggers just got even cooler. Not only is he running for Mayor... the first issue he's chosen to campaign on is open defecation! Where most politicians don't want to touch it with a ten foot pole for fear of political suicide, Broke Ass Stuart (Stuart Schuffmann) is right in there, pointing out the issues, proposing a solution and recognizing that while open defecation is a symptom of a much larger social equality providing dignified ways of getting the poo of the streets is a good start. I do hope he wins, and when he does, I want to be on the newly formed Privy Council!

Read More Here