The first sign that something is afoot comes as I approach Blackfriars Bridge on friday afternoon on the way home from work and see a regiment of portaloos.
When Gerry told me about the crowds for Chelsea’s triumphant parade he said that if you needed to go, you’d just have to piss where you stood, there were so many people and no toilets.
Since they boarded up the hostel at Great Guildford Street we can’t fill our flasks there or empty our bladders while we’re working over the road in Mint Street Park. I suggested to G. that she go to the public library at the Borough. I said the same to C. who is understandably more sensitive about the whole business. ‘Whereabouts in the library is it?’ he said. ‘It’s a kind of long narrow building,’ I said, ‘you go straight through to the far side, through a door into the archives, on the left, that’s where it is. They won’t mind you using the toilets. If you feel funny about it, just walk slowly through, pick up a magazine on the way, do a little browsing.’ But mostly we pee near the compost heaps at Mint Street, although the cover is far from perfect. You turn your back, unzip quick and hope for the best.
I remember a story my mother told me about the son of a friend of hers. After closing time in Salisbury, he headed for the public toilets by the car park near Crane Street bridge and found them locked. So he was just relieving himself in the bushes when he felt a hand on his shoulder. A £50 fine! Even my mother was disgusted.
When I used to do what I usually now call ‘private work’ I always liked the big gardens with lots of cover. Cover meant that the gardeners could be like pheasants or foxes in a wood. You could pee on the compost heap without worrying. You didn’t have to go to the house, ring the bell, ask to be admitted, take off your boots. Once and only once, just so I could say I’d done it, I added 50p to someone’s bill for compost activator. That garden had been cleverly designed, with compost bins between a big yew hedge and a wall.
One of the incidental pleasures of walking alone in wild places is being able to piss spontaneously and thoughtlessly. I was going to say, ‘like a dog’, but obviously there’s more to it for dogs. We don’t need to put down territorial markers like them. Do we?
Since they closed the café at Living Space, when the council withdrew its grant, we can no longer use the toilets there on the odd occasion when we go to weed the Green. We don’t go there that often any more because of our partial withdrawal from working in public open spaces, work for which we get little funding. So P. from Bankside Open Spaces Trust, our partner organisation, arranged for us to use the toilets at the Waterloo Action Centre just over the road. But I was refused entry one day, and so was one of my volunteers, and had to ask P. to remind the WAC of the agreement he had brokered. I can take a watering can and stand inside the tool shed, just, and then pour the urine on the compost heap, but sometimes you need to have a good wash as well, especially after rain when your hands get very dirty from weeding.
One day recently at the Green I went to my bag to get a pair of secateurs. I’d left it by the hedge near the ball court. A man was standing with his back to me looking contemplatively over the hedge at the ball court though no one was playing football. When I got near him and my bag I realised he was pissing against the hedge. He was embarrassed when he saw me. ‘Oh you’re a bus driver are you?’ I said, he said, ‘Yes. Come all the way from Hackney on a 26 and they expect you to drive all the way back without being able to have a piss.’ I said I didn’t mean to disturb him.
Later that same day I went over to the Waterloo Action Centre and pressed the buzzer. When I was admitted I said I was working on the Green and that I’d come to use the toilets – we had an arrangement to use the toilets – and the lady said, ‘you know where it is do you?’ I said yes and went through the big empty hallway into the toilets at the back where someone was showing a group of visitors round, they were talking about the need for redecoration. I said, ‘sorry, I’ve come to use the toilets’, and they let me through. As I was washing the mud off my hands the caretaker came along and said in a canIhelpyou cold kind of voice, ‘do you know that this is not a public toilet?’ I said ‘yes’, which was the only possible answer to his question. He wouldn’t believe my explanation about my entitlement to use these private toilets and told me never to show my face in there again. I raised my voice. I said that the lady at reception let me in, she knows about our arrangement, the arrangement which was made with BOST, the Bankside Open Spaces Trust, that I’d been doing dirty work all day on the Green, trying to make the place nice for everybody, and why was he treating me like this? We went back to reception and carried on arguing, even though the lady confirmed my story. I said, ‘I’m sorry I raised my voice’, but I kept it raised because the caretaker was still glaring at me suspiciously and wouldn’t apologise. Even though I’d just washed my hands thoroughly I felt dirty.
I was in the office the other day reading my emails. There have been a number of emails about anti-social behaviour in St John’s churchyard. What to do about the happy, quarrelsome gang of drinkers who spoil the memorial garden, light bonfires at night, casually abuse passers-by on the steps of the church, chuck their cans around. That day there was an email from a policeman in which he stated that on a visit to the churchyard the previous sunday he had seen food being handed out to the homeless, some of whom were hostile to the police. He had seen one of them urinating against a wall! How were the police expected to enforce a drinking ban when people were attracted to the churchyard by handouts and urinating against the wall was tolerated? (Actually there’s no connection between the east and central europeans who come for the food and the brits who inhabit the memorial garden and stay all night, but he didn’t realise that.)
After a gardening session in hot sunshine about ten days ago I went back to the office and had a pee and realised that that was the first time since I’d left home that morning that I’d needed to pee! This was due to a combination of hot weather and not drinking too much tea. Our volunteers drink litres of tea. In winter you need to pee much more often, which can be more problematic in that there is less vegetation to give cover, but less problematic in that there are fewer people around to see you.
Yesterday afternoon I went to St John’s to do one of my Chelsea Fringe walks. It was flotilla day on the river, the whole area was crowded. After we had walked round the gardens one of my customers, his name was John, asked if he could use the toilet. I couldn’t get into the crypt because it was locked and the verger hadn’t turned up because he was ill, so I said, ‘I’ll show you where the toilets are in the church’. As we walked past the big wheelie bins on the north side of the church, some of which are fire blackened and without their wheels, one of the people who’d come for the food was having a pee. You could tell he wasn’t contemplating the wheelie bins. I said, ‘you don’t want to follow his example I suppose!’ and John laughed and I took him into the church, and his partner decided she would take that opportunity as well. There were quite a few people standing about or getting ready for a service. I thought I would also use the toilet while it was there, while I was there, but a man came up to me and said I couldn’t. Maybe that day they were fed up with all the people who’d come for the Jubilee taking advantage of the church’s open door to come in and look for a toilet, in spite of the parades of portaloos on the approaches to the bridges. He was severe with me but when I kept my voice low and explained the circumstances he allowed me to use the toilet. I said I was sorry for any inconvenience I had caused.
On a more practical note I would like to recommend the public toilets near Exit 3 at Bank tube station, which I think I wrote about in one of my first blogs, and their excellent grouting. An attendant sits behind a partition, the upper part of which is blacked out, so that you can only see his legs.
This piece is dedicated to Her Majesty the Queen by whose gracious gift I had the bank holiday time to write it.