On being inconvenienced

Lavatory humour

On Tuesday, I read an article in the Guardian by Zoe Williams about two ‘toilet activists’ who have built a database of loo codes for cafés and shops across London. In resistance terms it’s hardly up there with the Maquis, but I wholeheartedly support their efforts, unlike Ms Williams, who airily declares that ‘the privatisation of toilets is one of the least contested areas of the public realm … because the state of needing the loo is such a temporary one that it doesn’t register as a meaningful deprivation’. Hah! Tell that to any man in his mid-sixties and you run the risk of being showered in invective. When two or three are gathered together, it’s never too long before the conversation turns to the subject of les pissoirs publiques (excuse my French), or rather the paucity thereof. This will inevitably be followed by harrowing tales of ‘close-run things’ and emergency evacuations, for all the world as if they are Battle of Britain veterans.

One of the first things I did on moving to Poitiers was to learn the location of every public convenience, either those specifically designed for the purpose or those in shops, bars, cafés, museums and galleries. I’ve done this wherever I’ve lived, having long learnt to appreciate the maxim ‘time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted’. If I’d stayed in London I could probably have earnt a crust giving a Blue Badge-standard guide to the capital’s ‘comfort stations’. This would have ended up with a visit to either the splendid Victorian WCs in the Princess Louise pub in Holborn or the strange Underground station-like atmosphere of the subterranean facilities in the University of London’s Senate House.

By some strange synchronicity, just after reading the Guardian piece I saw one in Le Parisien announcing the arrival of a new type of convenience in Paris. For reasons that will become obvious, these contraptions are known as Urilifts. These are manufactured by Pop-Up Toilets, a Dutch company who’ve been developing this type of equipment for almost 10 years. Urilifts are cabin-like structures consisting of two urinals and a closed cubicle, and their unique selling point is that they only come out at night. They rise up at 7 p.m. and disappear into the ground in the early morning. They are thus, according to their publicity, ‘designed to integrate into historic and heritage places and leave the public road accessible to residents during the day’. For the moment, there is only one in Paris, in Place des Abbesses, Montmartre, but more are planned.

…et voila! URILIFT up.

Now this is all well and good, and I can appreciate the authorities wanting to go for something discreet and unobtrusive, but I wonder if they have really thought this thing through. Once word gets around, I can see these things becoming attractions in their own right – not for tourists though, but for the local residents. As the hour of 7 p.m. approaches, they will gather at nearby cafés and on street corners, quietly smiling and nudging each other expectantly, trying to look nonchalant so as not to give the game away. The moment finally arrives. There is a slow, almost inaudible whirring sound. Then … ‘Urilifts are go!’ To gales of laughter, cheers and cries of allez-oop, some poor tourist, having paused momentarily to consult a map or take a photo, suddenly finds him or herself hoisted several feet in the air and marooned on top of a public convenience.

Obviously there is an element of chance in this. For one thing, there won’t always be someone standing in the right position. Also, the more agile and alert tourists will be able to leap off at the first signs of movement. But I think this uncertainty will only add to the excitement. Imagine the sharp intakes of breath as a potential punter comes close to the, for want of a better word, launch pad, and then the almost imperceptible sighs of disappointment as they move away again. Street theatre at its most compelling.

Of course the evening’s entertainment for the spectators need not necessarily end there. Once the Urilift is raised to its full height (with or without a rooftop passenger), someone will eventually want to make use of it. The locals know that as the door of the Urilift slowly opens for the first time that evening, there is always the possibility of said prospective user being trampled underfoot by some poor hungover wretch staggering out, cursing and roaring, having been unexpectedly trapped during the wee small hours (an apt phrase) and incarcerated below ground for the next fifteen.

Regular spectators will tell you gleefully of the rare occasions when one sees un whammy double, for example the time when a distraught American gentleman staggered out into the evening air only to look up bewilderedly at a Japanese lady standing above him tearfully beseeching to help her down from the roof. It sounds like a scene from a modern-day Madam Butterfly.

Given the nature of my bladder and my tendency to absent-mindedness, it would be foolhardy for me to declare ‘you’ll never get me up in one of those’, but I shall tread warily the next time I’m in Montmartre.

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