Sunday, July 08, 2012

Out Of Sight: Public toilets

"The loo, the bog, the crapper, the pit, the dunny. Powder my nose, point Percy at the porcelain, visit the little boys’ room.

The toilet is an institution in British and Anglo-Saxon consciousness. Different parts of Britain offer different motifs for the place and the act, as do different parts of the US and Australia. The toilet, for all that it represents, at its base level, merely defecation and micturition, is democracy in action, or perhaps in motion. It is a symbol of equality, founded on bodily function. The toilet, especially the public toilet, is ingrained in British culture and British psyche. The late Marcus Merriman, an ebullient history professor at my university, wrote about the public toilet. More noted for his work on Mary Queen of Scots, this Anglophile American was nonetheless impressed enough by the English (and British) affinity with the public loo and its architecture to direct research into such a study. And rightly so. Though the magnificent glazed tiling of, for instance, London’s old Victorian stations has been widely vandalised by the arrival of sanitised whitewash and aluminium, the WC remains a visible sign of a history of public hygiene. But more than just a symbol, the public loo is a Briton’s right. Even if no relief is consciously required, a public toilet suddenly evokes a brain-to-bladder-or-bowel reaction that demands one “just nips to the loo”.

In Mallorca, there is no such heritage. If a national emblem of Great Britain were to be a public privy, the Mallorcan equivalent would be a tree or a wooded place, adorned preferably with an abundance of dock leaves. Or alternatively, it would be a bar or restaurant.

Need a public loo in Mallorca? Generally impossible. List three of the most frequent questions asked of tourist information offices, and among them will be “where’s the loo?”. The absence causes disorientation for the British tourist, used to getting a spatial bearing through the location of the nearest lav. For some, the non-availability is a sign of backwardness. Forget the preserved and restored historical monuments, the well-constructed and attractive marinas and promenades. These are nought in terms of achievement when set against the lack of a public pisser."

I wrote the foregoing five years ago, but felt it germane to reproduce it in honour of Palma town hall's debate as to the establishment of public lavs. It was the bit about preserved and restored historical monuments that I was reminded of when it emerged that the Association for the Revitalisation of Historic Centres had lobbied the town hall to ensure that any public lavs wouldn't actually be public. The association does not want the sight of WCs vulgarising or banalising old parts of Palma, and nor does the organisation overseeing Palma's grandiose 365 tourism plan.

As a consequence of this lobbying and of the ongoing debate, the town hall has decided to drop the idea of there being loos very obviously dotted around the city. Instead, the council is looking at the idea of housing loos in car parks. There will be loos, just that you won't be bumping into one as you make your way, for example, to the Cathedral's entrance. No vulgar toilets for us please, we're Mallorcan.

The conspicuous absence of the public loo raises the question as to why it is so rare in Mallorca. The reasons, one suspects, lie with hygiene issues in the past and also with the abundant supply of bars and cafés. It may well have been the case that bars were expected to double up as public loos, regardless of whether someone desperate for a leak bought anything, but it is no longer the case that bars willingly allow anyone to wander in off the street in order to make a pit-stop without also forking out for a drink that will demand that the same person has to then make a further bar pit-stop and go through the whole rigmarole again.

Some public loos have appeared in the past few years. One such is on the promenade in Puerto Alcúdia. While hackles are raised in Puerto Pollensa about the unsightliness of wooden cabins for nautical businesses to sell their services, no one much objected to the sudden appearance of some wooden loos in Alcúdia. When they were first put up, I did take a look inside the gents. I didn't actually go in, and nor did I need to. Had I needed to, I wouldn't have done. One trusts it doesn't have quite the same whiff that it used to have.

The merits of a public lavatory are no longer determined by their architectural design. The merits are purely to do with whether they are kept in sanitary conditions. One presumes that Palma town hall will ensure that they are, whichever car parks they end up in. The lobby against them being publicly visible was reasonable enough. The Brits may have been brought up with the public loo in highly visible locations, but there is much to be said for the fact that the loo, while not out of mind, should be out of sight.

Any comments to please.

No comments: