The following is an excerpt from my next book, Kismet Quick: a travelogue/guide/ramble/rant through 40 of Norfolk’s towns and villages (I’ve visited each via public transport). Kismet Quick is now available to buy here. Check this site for regular updates & follow the journey in photographs here
It’s pretty pointless to critique public toilets. It’s common knowledge that they nearly all act as supporting evidence for the theory of the Fall of Man. Yet Dereham’s commodes, nestled up an ominous looking back passage (so to speak) between Natwest and Specsavers, really are rotten. And really need critiquing.
Once I’d crept up said passage, away from the town centre, everything went eerily quiet, as though I’d slipped into a different time continuum. The busy high street was but yards away yet all sound was muted. You’re on your own, kid. The back of Natwest ran the length of the alley. It had tiny, prison-barred, square windows. They created the impression that I’d entered a 1950s jail yard. I expected to hear the light buzz of a harmonica or see Tim Robbins walking about, shuffling soil down his trouser leg.
I could smell the toilet block before I could see it. Maybe smell isn’t the right word. Smell makes it sound optional (for example, I might bow down to smell a rose through choice). The Dereham toilet smell wasn’t optional. It attacked. It was mustard gas. One whiff of it would give Siegfried Sassoon flashbacks to his evenings with Wilfred Owen. It ate away at the face. It made the eyes bubble.
There is little on God’s green earth as contagious as human waste. If you want to catch a virus, go to a communal toilet. That’s where they thrive. Just as evolution has taught us to be wary of spiders and rats, it has also engrained into us a defensive reflex for infected air. It’s called gagging. My own reflex was in fine fettle as I took a bold step towards the toilet door:
‘Huboorwah, fucking HELL, gurghhahh,’ I said, quoting Wilde.
I clamped my thin, Summer polo shirt over my mouth. As gas mask designs go, this one was unlikely to snapped up by the MoD anytime soon. For all my desperate clamping, I could still taste the warm, piss-flavoured air seeping through the cotton. I pressed the shirt even harder onto my face. It was practically in my mouth. And still the stench oozed through.
I hadn’t even opened the door yet.
When I was younger my bladder would always let me down during games of hide and seek. The moment I got myself securely hidden amongst the shoes and dress tails at the bottom of my parents’ wardrobe I would instantly need a wee. It was as though my bladder was working against me, actively trying to get me into trouble. Nowadays, (with my hide and seek playing career now retired) my bladder lets me down differently. It waits for me to say to myself, ‘I really hope I don’t need to go the toilet any time soon’ and then instantly clicks into gear:
‘Don’t want to go the toilet, eh?’ it says. ‘We’ll see about that, mate.’
My visit to Dereham provided the perfect opportunity for my bladder to screw me over: I didn’t want to use the public toilets but I had to. I was desperate. I couldn’t just piss in the alleyway – although, judging by the smell, many other people hadn’t felt quite so reserved about the idea. Neither did my tight schedule give me time to go gallivanting around trying to find alternative loos. I had to go there and then. So, I put my fisted hand to the door (making sure to touch only the parts of it that people don’t usually touch) and pushed it open, slowly. Slowly.
There were no lights on inside the dungeon. My only guide was a white beam of sunlight cutting across the darkness from a high window. The door creaked shut behind me. It clicked into place. You’re on your own, kid. Actually, I wasn’t on my own. I was surrounded by a swarm of flies recreating a crowd scene from Attenborough’s Ghandi. They were everywhere; buzzing in sufficient unison to create the sound of a low flying bi-plane. What did I think of human civilization? I thought it was a good idea.
Not only was I concerned about inhaling the most hip and happening virus strain, there was also a slight fear that I might find myself joined at the urinal by one of those members of society who take a more liberal approach to the idea of public toilet discretion. Maybe word had got around that a stranger had gone into the toilet and was no doubt yearning for someone to go in after him to stare at his penis. It certainly had the feel of a place where such carefree gentlemen might occasionally meet to break the monotony of life.
I forced my wee out. I didn’t know whether to wash my hands or not. I had yet to touch any part of the building with my fingers. I decided that I couldn’t leave without some form of contact with soap. So I twisted the tap with my elbows, vice-like. I smashed the soap dispenser with my forearm – Bang! The flies made an explosive buzz and retreated for all of two seconds before assessing the threat level and returning to their territories. My hands were clean but they had never felt dirtier. I elbowed the tap back into the off position and hooked the front door open with my left foot. I stumbled out into the sun, down the alleyway, knock-kneed like a beggar. I had survived.
A recent newspaper article revealed that the Dereham toilets are to undergo a ‘long awaited’ renovation. According to a town councilor quoted in the report, ‘This issue seemed to be raised with monotonous regularity at town council meetings by members of the public.’ Obviously it wasn’t brought up with sufficient monotonous regularity to get someone in charge to act swiftly on it. The renovation will cost the town a startling £168,000. The toilets themselves, design-wise, are really no worse any other. They are perfectly functional. All they need is a good clean, two light bulbs and regular inspections. The council might be better served by taking that £168, 000 and putting it towards employing somebody to maintain the current ones. It’s amazing that toilet maintenance seems such a difficult thing for councils to organise. Why are there so many horrible public toilets out there? Why were the monotonous people of Dereham even having to force the point? What’s going on here?
Anyway, that’s enough toilet talk. Actually, quickly, while we’re on the subject, this part of the county isn’t without form when it comes to sanitary inspectors. In 1915, a Swaffham based sanitary inspector fought for the Norfolk Yeomanry at Gallipoli (where Mel Gibson met the first of his many cinematic fates). He survived the Gallipoli massacre and returned home to join the Royal Flying Corps, thinking it safer in the air, away from all those bullets. In his case, he was right. He enjoyed flying so much that he eventually began to write heroic stories about a pilot. He wrote under the pen name Captain W.E Johns and called his fictional fighter Biggles.
Maybe Dereham town council should apply to the Arts Council for that £168,000.