When I turned sixty-five my doctor gave me three pieces of advice.
- Never knowingly walk past a public loo.
- If you think you’re going to pass wind, don’t risk it.
- Should you get an erection, use it.
Sound ideas, I thought, except perhaps the final one since an irregular heartbeat already deprives my brain of oxygen-laden red cells and redirecting yet more blood might make me pass out.
The first suggestion was the most useful. I’m now in a steady relationship with public loos. I do knowingly walk past them, but never without adding their locations and opening times to my mental map – an imprint which includes cafes, bars, hotels and any stores with toilets the public can use. A relief map, so to speak.
The map for my home town of Ledbury is of course complete, as are outline maps of nearby towns Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester. Further afield, Birmingham City Centre and London Paddington Station are fairly well plotted, and having spent a great deal of my life in Brighton I’m confident about its layout too.
Where there’s a choice, the quality of premises counts. For example, my map shows that the men’s loo at Gloucester Bus Station is no-go for hygiene and feel-good, whereas Wetherspoon toilets are generally well kept. And whilst the loos of most Ledbury cafes might be all potpourri and frilly flowers, there’s one hotel that could do a good trade selling surgical masks in its men’s toilet.
Then there’s the question of payment. Perhaps once or twice in my life, in desperation and not without a good deal of resentment, I’ve paid to use a loo. The idea of charging originated in major railway termini, perhaps using their captive market to tempt people with a more attractive alternative than toilets on trains. Admittedly they are very clean. Thirty pence a go, it is – free for moneyless people whom I’ve often witnessed climbing in through the exit turnstiles with practised ease.
Charging has now become more common. McDonalds has coded loo doors – you have to buy something to get a code. I’m told that in Amsterdam nightclubs you have to pay each time you go to the loo or buy a night pass for 3Euros. A while ago Michael O’Leary floated the idea of charging customers to use the loo on Ryanair flights. And many local Councils in the UK, where they haven’t actually closed toilets, have started charging – supposedly a fund raiser in these hard times.
Fact is you shouldn’t have to pay once you’ve developed a mental map. There’s always a free alternative nearby, more often than not sponsored by the very places charging. Pubs and cafes in the retail ‘villages’ on major railway stations are a good bet. And some Councils promote so-called Community Toilet Schemes where Marks and Spencer, Wetherspoon and the like are encouraged to give free access to their loos.
I contend in any case that charging to wee is proportionately unfair on us ageing men. We can’t help how our bodies change. “Slo-flo” and “little and often” can be part of daily life. Should we really have to pay over the odds for nature’s shortcomings?
Fortunately I’m able to laugh along on that subject. I remember a work colleague at an English Heritage site pointing to a cow in an adjacent field and wistfully saying, ‘I wish I could still piss like that.’ And whenever I’m out with my teenage daughter I come to expect her cry of, ‘Not again, dad! You’ve only just been!’ I even enjoyed a younger friend’s inadvertency at a Brighton and Hove Albion soccer match. The half-time scrum in the men’s urinals involved banking up behind existing stallholders, creating a second row as it were, then stepping up when the man in front had finished. On returning to his seat my friend said, ‘Trouble is, you get stuck there for ages if you land up behind some old bloke with a prostate problem. You wonder if he’s ever gonna finish!’ Yeah, thanks for that, Buzzer. It was probably me.
Yet, charging to use loos might be better than shutting them altogether. Closing public toilets in tourist towns like Ledbury, Hereford and Worcester is a bad plan. Such places are a mecca for day-trippers who add life to the streets and money to the economy. Visitors need wooing. Throughout the year I see coaches dropping people off on Ledbury High Street for a two-hour stopover. Who are these people? Well, like me, they’re part of the growing elderly population that has time on its hands. And what’s the first thing they might want when they’ve been stuck on a coach for the last hour or two? Visitors often stop to ask me where there’s a loo. When I worked in Ledbury Library we were asked every day. At the moment I can still point to one that’s open, but for how long I don’t know.
As a visitor to Malta last Christmas I was relaxing in glorious winter sunshine on Sliema harbour front when a group of elderly tourists came tottering towards me. Led by a cheerful if mechanically-spoken lady sporting a blue Saga badge, the dozen or so newcomers moved at the pace of the couple bringing up the rear – dead ringers for the Highway Code road sign. Saga specialises in holidays for the over fifties, with a majority upwards of seventy-five. One of the company’s routines is to run a local orientation walk on the first morning. In a small Majorcan resort, when the rep pointed out the chemists, supermarkets, churches of various denominations and public toilets, I remember thinking how sensible this was for new people in unfamiliar surroundings, particularly the most elderly and those with special needs.
In Sliema the group stopped alongside my bench while the leader waved her arms semaphore-style, like the cabin crew doing safety drill on an Airbus 300.
‘In the likely event of you getting caught short,’ she said loudly, ‘there are public toilets there – there – and there.’
Indeed, Malta is proudly endowed with public loos, and I’d formed an excellent mental map by the end of my first day. I thought it ironic that a country perhaps second only to Britain in Britishness continues to recognise the importance of such public investment, made by the British, while back in blighty governments now deem public toilets surplus to requirements. Perhaps we can learn from this former British colony. How nice it would be, say, to find that my local Council had printed ‘GO’ at the end of its welcoming HEREFORDSHIRE – YOU CAN logo – and meant it.
And when you’ve gotta go …
Copyright © Paul Costello January 2015
Website: www.paulcostello.me Twitter: @PaulCostello8