Posted by: Linda Proud | March 10, 2011

An Inconvenienced Public

I thought I would devote a post this week to the public convenience, if only because it is under threat. And because I’ve had an idea.

First, a few words on peeing al fresco and the magic of urine. On the allotments is the Bramble Patch, only someone has cut down one side to reveal the little cubby hole within the bush that has been so useful over the years (you should see the colour of the grass and the size of the blackberries – and no, there is no smell, not in nature). Loo Two on the allotments is one of our own compost bays where I squat down and pretend to be a pile of compost for a minute or so, less if I can.

We got quite excited about the idea of a compost toilet, a proper one, until the allotment secretary had a North Oxford fit – shrieks of horror rising to a loud bray that indicates the crossing of a boundary in decorum. So we – and by we I mean the men – piss on the straw only when she’s not around. Straw bales and male urine, you see, make the most perfect and quick compost. Apparently I could join in if I were to invest in a gadget called a ‘She-wee’ or ‘She-pee’, but I have a horrible feeling I’d just get my hands wet. So I go off looking for a bush, or I follow the secretary to her own convenience of choice which is at the meadow car park.

Public convenience at the meadow car park, Godstow.

Not pretty, is it? In fact, in the right mood I could shriek and bray about how ghastly it is. That metal toilet! That hole in the wall which sends down soap, water and hot air like you were a coffee cup in a vending machine. And look, there on the wall is one teensy-weensy little effort to brighten the place: a single decorative tile showing the spires of Oxford.

Presumably metal has advantages?

Now, believe it or not, there are times when I think this place is just heaven, but it all depends on the pressure on my bladder. Which just about brings me to my good idea, except that I’m going to veer off on a digression.

My bladder was oppressed today when I was three-quarters of the way to King’s Lock. When I got there, I found there was a loo, but it hasn’t been built yet. It is Phase Two of the delightful programme which so far has given us an eco visitor centre. This 4 x 6 shed made of straw bales is just fabulous when the wind is as cold and bitter as it was yesterday, and how cosy it will be when Bluetit TV is actually working. I shall come back soon, with a good book and a flask of tea, but only when Phase Two is operational.

I found a shady bush, and came out of it just seconds before a couple of students came pounding past on an afternoon run. That was a close one, because really it was more of an arbour than a bush.

Then, with my thoughts back in my brain, I made my journey home, wondering how many toilet opportunities there were on this 5km walk, and there were more than I might have supposed, including the Trout Inn (‘I’d like to book a table for next week, but before I do…’) and the meadow car park, but while I was thinking thus, my birdwatching life reached its apotheosis when I saw a peacock on the towpath just ahead. It came from the Trout Inn, of course, but for a moment I could dream…

Anyway, back to the Golden Compost Activator…  I was reading yesterday morning about leather tanning, as you do when you’re a historical novelist, and found that to make a hide into supple leather, it needs to be soaked in pee. I can’t remember now if that is just after or just before it is soaked in diluted pigeon droppings and then again in a vat of animal brains. Anyway, somewhere along the line, the hide has a long stint in a vat of pee. And I discovered that the tanners could not produce themselves all they needed (which surprises me, because my domestic producer of GCA seems quite capable of filling a vat) so they put out piss pots on street corners to collect donations from passers-by.

Now as I write the name Vespasian floats into my mind, given that, back at home, my mind is on things higher than where’s the next toilet, but my dictionary and Wikipedia and a general google shed no light. So I turned, as you do when you’re a historical novelist, to my Italian dictionary, and there it was: vespasiano – a street urinal.

So now that really does bring me back to my bright idea. You see, in the past public conveniences were beautiful – lovely Victorian architecture, a bit heavy perhaps, but solid, and the interior tiled, the toilet and basins of white ceramic, the chain of bright steel, the pull of turned wood. How do I know all this? Either it’s imagination or I’m older than even I think I am. But that’s how I see them, like London tube stations or public baths. And I rather think they were there through the benefaction of industrialists.

Because men in the past had consciences, and public spirit, and a touch of chauvanism about their city, and healthy competition with the next city. So Mr Big of Bradford wanted his city to outdo Leeds when it came to a vespasian. But where is that public spirit today? The filthy rich, when they don’t need any more houses or swimming pools, give their dosh to charity, a sexy charity that will impress their friends, not to the local community.

One tile, pathetic in its solitude

I stood in the meadow car park bunker, taking a photograph of the decorative tile, and called upon Richard Branson of Kidlington to start a new trend. Think what fun it could be! The people of North Oxford could have Virgin Vespasians.

As it is, our shameful 1960s bunkers are threatened with closure (although since our secretary had a word with the local councillor, it seems our privvy on the meadow car park has been saved from the axe. She could make the devil himself change his ways, she could.) Truth be told, they’ll be missed by the bladder but not by the aesthetic eye. Oxford public conveniences are the very pits, and a compost toilet seems a luxury in comparison, but just getting rid of them is hardly the answer. No, now is the time to get visionary and aspirational. So will all billionaires reading this please get inspired.



  1. Another sign of the death of public space. But if this one encourages more plein-air peeing, it’s a fringe benefit at least. Like plein-air sleeping, there’s just something *right* about it (plus the compost bin is just outisde the kitchen door, useful when busy cooking… and yes I do wash my hands).

    Bring on the Virgin vespesian army!

    You didn’t suggest the corner of Godstow Nunnery: surely perfect? The sun even reaches there, in the right light. You could be Sister Sheena na Gig for a few minutes there…

  2. Thank you for the belly laugh – but really, the nunnery?? That would be sacriligious. Or is that just ‘old thinking’ on my part about bodily functions? Perhaps He who gave us bladders – and a bit of a design fault, to my thinking – wouldn’t mind. But Jon, I’m not now going to forget Sheena na Gig whenever I’m out and caught short!

  3. The financial issue with public conveniences is not so much the cost of construction, but maintenance and cleaning. So an appeal to rich people should be to ask for an endowment rather than a one-off contribution.

    On a lighter but still practical note, men’s urine can deter badgers from pilfering grapes from vineyards. (Don’t know why, but I am given to understand that women’s urine doesn’t).

    • Well, in my utopian vision I have the local community looking after that, as well as tending the window boxes and flower troughs they have decorated the building with, all as a matter of local pride you understand.

      As for the potency of male pee, that’s interesting about the badgers, and it goes for compost making, as well. I presume the magic ingredient is testosterone. Certainly the less oestrogen we spread about the countryside the better or the next thing will be gay slugs. Actually, that could be a good thing…

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