Anybody who knows me knows there is nothing I value more than a reliable flush.
Which is why I am in a permanent state of horror about the state of public loos in this, the world’s sixth richest country.
In 1984 I went to Cologne on a German study trip.
What an eye opener.
The city was like a Playmobil set. There was an ancient cathedral, fabulous nineteenth-century-style salons serving beautiful marzipan confections, quaint, well-ordered buildings to marvel at and arty shops to browse in.
All a far cry from the grey monotony of Chelmsford town centre where I hung out with my friends.
Cologne was so modern, so forward thinking that I found myself paralysed by ignorance in the immaculate public loos in the centre of the city.
I’d managed the push button flush (British loos of the time had handles; my nan’s still had a chain) but when it came to the wash basins I was rendered stupid.
I could see something that looked like a tap, but I could not see for the life of me how to turn it on.
Obviously I couldn’t leave without washing my hands because I am diligent about hand hygiene and obsessed with infection control.
So I waited for somebody else to arrive. In the meantime, I checked myself out in the well-lit, giant mirrors.
Yes, I definitely looked like a nervous, British teenager with chapped lips.
Eventually, a German woman strode in. Within a couple of minutes she’d made her way to the basins where I was scrutinising my lips in detail.
From the corner of my eye I watched her do magic.
She simply waved her hand under the tap and water emerged.
Christ! This was how I imagined Lieutenant Uhura washed her hands on the USS Enterprise.
Once the other woman had departed, I tried waving my own hand around the basin.
Eventually, I too made magic water happen.
This was my introduction to light activated technology.
As I walk past the boarded up public loos in a town near where I live, I feel embarrassed.
I don’t know how many Germans find themselves needing the loo in the depths of Dorset, but I’m pretty sure they won’t understand why the ugly, cold, stainless steel units which once passed as conveniences are often shut up.
I don’t understand myself.
I’m not going to get political. All I’ll say is that I’ve visited the loos in the Palace of Westminster and they are plentiful, well appointed and accessible at all times. And they have good quality soap and hand lotion too.
A decent loo has to be the mark of a civilised society, doesn’t it?
We’re not all unloading stolen gear or shooting up in them.
And the idea that private enterprise will fill the gap is, I’m afraid, risible.
Not so long ago I injudiciously drank two cups of tea before embarking on my hour long drive to work.
Twenty four minutes in and the sensation that my bladder was full, struck. The nearest pub to the origin of that sensation hadn’t yet opened and I was forced to journey on.
Thirty two minutes in and I was genuinely regretting having children. The impact on internal organs is lasting.
There was nothing for it. I pulled into the parking of the 7/11, threw myself in the doorway and asked to use the loo.
The assistant told me there was no access to the loo for members of the public. I didn’t feel like a member of the public at that point.
I felt like a Tsunami.
“I’m really sorry,” I said, “but if this shop were an island in the Indian Ocean, you’d be hearing alert sirens right now. There is going to be a torrent of water, and it’ll either happen right here in front of you or it’ll happen through there, in that staff loo. The point is, it IS going to happen. And you’ll either be mopping it up or you’ll be the proud recipient of my new ‘Actual Member of Humanity’ award.”
He stared at me. “But…”
“I don’t have time for buts,” I said, “now, which is it to be?”
He pointed nervously at the staff loo.
I scaled a pallet of fabric conditioner to get to it.
The relief was like none I have known.
On the way home I dropped a card in to the shop, declaring my gratitude and praising the feckless assistant so he didn’t get in any trouble.
The manager asked me if I was taking the piss.