Criminal Toilets by Barbara Nadel

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In an effort to distract myself from the ghastly reality that is so-called ‘Brexit’ I’m going to talk about toilets. Not the ones we have at home, but the ones that we encounter out in the ‘wild’. Toilets don’t feature that much in crime fiction, or any fiction apart, I imagine, from adventurous erotic fiction. And there’s a reason for this.

When I was a kid growing up in 60s and 70s London, a visit to a public toilet was generally a journey into gloom. Usually ‘attended’ by elderly women who chain-smoked, they were dimly lit places where you put a penny in a slot in the cubicle door and then disappeared to, guiltily, do unmentionable things over a water-closet. Toilets then, particularly at Tube stations, were usually Victorian and were characterised by walls covered in off-white and sage green tiles. These were mostly cracked and grubby especially around the dirty sinks which may or may not have been hanging off the walls.

‘The Bogs’ as we kids called them could also be quite dangerous – mainly because the chain-smoking women would wash the floors without telling anyone and then lock themselves away in their cupboards to read the Daily Mail. You could break your neck on a wet bog floor.

There were human hazards too. Old women getting locked in ancient cubicles with their drawers round their ankles, screaming, junkies shooting up and dying (there were often syringes on the floor, especially at Baker Street Tube Station), skinhead girls fighting… Blood up the walls.

But, in spite of all the downsides, at least you had places to ‘go’.

One of the biggest victims of government cuts over the last few years has been the public toilet. As local councils try to make savings, thousands of bogs have closed all over the country. There are now whole swathes of the capital, particularly, where you could piss and shit yourself ten times over without access to a toilet. Luckily, as a nation, we are resourceful and have learned to use ‘other places’. Here’s a list you might find useful. Bogs can usually be found in:

Department Stores

Mainline Railway and Bus Stations

Fast Food Restaurants and Cafes

Pubs and Restaurants

I’ve used most of these over the years, but just recently, for some reason, I seem to have been in a lot of restaurant bogs. Ranging from lunch joints, to full-on gourmet restaurants, these places always have bogs which are, generally, clean. So I like them. Or rather I did.

In the last few months I have noticed a worrying trend in restaurant bog décor which is deeply troubling. While the actual cubicles remain the clean, generally white or cream, facilities we have become accustomed to, the sink and ‘grooming’ area has morphed into a space of horror. This is characterised by vast swathes of black marble (walls, ceilings, floors), shallow sinks that look as if they come from a pathology lab and lighting so ‘subdued’ you can’t see a hand in front of your face. Mirrors, featuring diffuse and distorted images of yourself loom out over the tops of tiny vanity units (black) littered with minute fragments of cocaine powder. It’s like being in a smog-bound dystopian nightmare. A version of ‘Bladerunner’ that includes designer hand-wash and the real danger of walking into a wall or being queasily sick into something that turns out to be a basket full of tiny hand towels. Paper towels or, even better, those old blue towels on a roll, are unheard of in the dystopian bog. It’s these tiny cloth efforts or those insane hand-driers that make your skin look as if it was born in the 1880s.

Of course you emerge from this experience in a state of shock. If you’re really unlucky the whole thing has scared you shitless. Also, there is a real danger that lack of light has caused you to not notice that you’ve pissed down your own leg or that your skirt is tucked into your knickers.

I’m asking, what is the point? Why? I thought we’d done with the gloomy bog back in the 1970s, but clearly not. I guess it’s fashion. But it’s hardly practical. Falling arse over tit on a highly polished floor or stumbling into a wall when you mistake it for a cubicle door is far from glamorous. And reminding us all of our own mortality through the medium of sinks is just cruel.

So let’s say no to these bogs. I know we don’t pay to use them, having usually slipped in just to ‘go’ from the street. But that’s not the point. One day someone in a restaurant gloom-bog is going to have an horrific marble and glass based accident. It’s only a question of time and then, THEN you’ll find that toilets do feature in crime fiction, mainly because I will make a terrifying story out of them.

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