|It is always wonderful to find a public loo that's|
well maintained and free. Thanks and praise be to
Westminster City Council for keeping this one at
the north end of Queensway open.
It happens so often that you begin almost unconsciously to limit your excursions and explorations to areas where you know you can get to a toilet easily and quickly.
Last week, doing what used to be a quite frequent stroll around the Dalston and Hoxton area, I quickly realised I no longer knew where to go.
No doubt apps exist which direct you straight to the nearest urinal....but ancient phone can only run a couple of apps at any given moment.
You could ask a policeman? Don't think so, especially now so many cops look like intergalactic stormtroopers with their big guns and armour.
So, what happens most often these days, you're forced to go into a pub, see if it's possible to slink into their loos without anyone noticing....and if not, buying a half of something. In my case, embarrassment prohibits the most obvious behaviour - asking the bar staff if they'd mind...in case they did.
So you end up temporarily relieved, but 20 minutes later that half of nasty lager is already tickling the nerve ends of your confused and inefficient bladder.
You could try a café, but be warned quite a few of the big-name chains keep their bogs locked; you have to beg for a key, which in the case of one such bar near St James Piccadilly, was attached to a massive chunk of heavy timber. Honestly, it is outrageous: charge £2.50 for maybe 20p worth of coffee, then don't make allowance for the highly diuretic effects of caffeine.
And whatever happened to those much-heralded scheme to pay private businesses (pubs, cafés etc) to allow the general public to use their loos? If anyone ever actually had satisfaction from one of these schemes, which were in the news about 15 years ago, do let us know.
When all else fails we often end up doing what an increasing number of desperate humans do in this city which no longer recognises any duty of care to the public - we find a dark, quiet (and usually very stinky) corner.
What's going on there? What is it with this crazy city, where even the most basic, pitiable needs of the elderly and weak-bladdered are turned into an opportunity to torment and humiliate, then part them from their cash?
London was one of the first big cities to introduce public toilets back in the mid-19th century, but then as now it was seen by many as an opportunity to turn a profit. Hence the phrase "to spend a penny". Mind you, in those days they did give their clients a superior piddling experience for their pennies.
It was still a penny when I was a kid - one of those big pre-decimal pennies that you dropped through a slot in the lock of the heavy green door to give you access to the WC. Urinals were usually free.
Now you're lucky to get a wee for less than 50p - although the recent brilliant decision to liberate toilets at the railway termini was a massive victory for common sense, health and decency.
Are we at last waking up from a 50 year slumber in which we allowed councils to close dozens of magnificent old loos, with their beautiful tiles and mosaic floors and brass fittings and stained glass?
These underground temples to the gods of excretion were a product of the Victorians' new found understanding of the importance of public hygiene; and also a desire to avoid, at all costs, the horror of men - and yes, women too - pissing in the street. But, as so often, their efforts went way beyond the purely functional: many of the public toilets built in the late 19th century were ridiculously ornate, expensively decorated with beautiful tiled floors, solid brass fittings, stained glass light-panes and mature oak seats.
There is a wonderful website - one of the absolute best - called Derelict London.
One of its most fascinating and indeed thrilling sections is devoted to derelict public conveniences.
They are exhaustively catalogued, with hi-res photos showing the extent of the vandalism which has been sanctioned for so long.
And yet, these places survive. They were built to last and last they did - through two wars and bombing raids - until in the 60s and 70s they were left to rot, and went into a rapid decline.
Councils no longer thought it necessary to employ attendants for every loo; rather than repair damage to the beautiful craftsmanship, the old tiles were often covered with cladding. In some men's loos, sheets of metal were erected between stalls, to discourage cottaging (See Broadwick Street gents, in Soho).
In some but not all cases, the underground loos were they replaced by those ugly and scary dalek-shaped huts - self-cleaning loos, they were supposed to be. If you had the 20 or 50p required to use them, you then took a gamble on whether the sliding door would work, or decide to slide open mid-performance.
More recently, some of these subterranean caves of delightful convenience have been sold off, privatised to re-open as - believe it - bars and restaurants.
One of the first to do so was outside the Hawksmoor church in Spitalifields. Another was the stinky gents at Clapham Common underground station, now just another eating and drinking place called, amusingly, Joe Public ( so presumably they kept some of the loos working).
Another old convenience had a different fate - the toilets at Kennington Cross in Lambeth famously became the Artslav exhibition space in 2005. But that seems to have gone now too.
On a recent visit to Portobello Road, it was a really surprising delight to find that the Talbot Road conveniences were once again open and free to use. This is quite a gem in its way, with lovely tiled floors: the real joy (apart from the obvious physical relief) felt on using these loos was that they seemed just the same as they had about 20 years ago: no charge, no annoying notices, no bragging from any council or charity; no welded steel sheets; no turnstiles.
It's obviously a great asset for the the market, which welcomes thousands of tourists from all over every weekend. OPen up and liberate all those other locked and chained public loos across the city still in public ownership - can't the Mayor add this to his list of responsibilities? It would surely be a massive vote winner for Sadiq, as well as providing endless opportunities for witty pre-election sloganeering.
Meanwhile, like many thousands of other London street-crawlers, I will continue to rely on building my own mental map of free pee-ing places. They include, of course, public libraries (but even these are not always a good bet in these days of PFI-style operations); museums and art galleries (but it is such a shame that you might be forced to walk into the National Gallery with the sole genuine purpose of needing to take a leak, rather than wanting to check out a Holbein or a Vermeer); and, if you have the nerve and the swagger, any one of London's multitude of posh west-end hotel lobbies.
It is still shocking that some of the loos in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens charge for use; but the ones by the Serpentine Lido do not. Veteran Covent Garden frequenters might remember the wonderful and entertaining free public toilets neside St Paul's Church in the Piazza; memories of cheerful attendants and operatic music as you went about your business. Now, you have to pay - and on weekends, queue and then pay.
There's no doubt the trend is once again towards