At your convenience

    9 May 2015

    Five weeks on tour with Harvey the play, followed by a week at home and two days at a spa hotel with my chap, has discombobulated my nocturnal wanderings. I can’t remember which side of the bedroom leads to the bathroom, where the light switch is and, frankly, whether I’m alone or there’s another mound in the bed when I finally find my way back to it at 4 a.m., piercingly awake.

    Then there’s the loo. Up on a carpeted rostrum or sunk into a meaningless marble rectangle? Does the seat slowly descend or crash resoundingly? On one recent trip to Loo-Loo Land, bleary from too much herbal sleep-tincture, I managed to trap my thumb between the seat and the toilet rim and sit down on it heavily. It was excruciating, and I did what one always does when in pain and alone: nothing. Just sat there, throbbing, with a daft expression on my face and a single tear rolling down my cheek. My character in Harvey, the socially conscious Veta Louise Simmons, bore a fat navy-blue thumbnail from Malvern to the opening night at the Haymarket.

    Which leads me to the flush. Push button, two settings or ensconced behind the lid and requiring two hands? Irritating enough in daylight, positively dangerous when accompanied by the hooting of owls. A broad flat button on the top of the cistern, a stiffly resisting handle on the side or the mock-Edwardian chain-and-porcelain dongle you get in a ‘boutique hotel’ — i.e. a former pickle factory which let Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen in with a lorryload of Farrow & Ball?

    Theatre toilets, of course, are always archaic. Two cubicles at most in the ladies’ and ten women crossing their legs as the men skip back to the auditorium and the curtain goes up. Most of these theatres were built when women still wore corsets and vast hooped skirts. I often wonder if they didn’t sport some kind of device under there, so they could quietly relieve themselves at their seats while Beerbohm Tree was giving his Richard III.

    Once, on an island vacation, we met a merry family on the beach with a holiday home nearby. They invited us for tea, during which I excused myself to go to the euphemism. Sitting there in mid-flow, I glanced up at the mirrored door to see their whole family and mine standing inches away, pointing and laughing at me. I almost passed out. In truth it was a two-way mirror on the door; I could see them but they couldn’t, it turned out, see me.

    It was their little private joke for guests. This guest went into rictus, couldn’t move for 15 minutes and spent the rest of the holiday avoiding her merry hosts.

    Toilets have evolved surprisingly slowly since the 16th century, when John Harington, courtier, writer and master of art, invented the flushing water closet and installed one for Queen Bess (who wasn’t impressed). Except, that is, in Japan. The Japanese, so up-front about saunas and showering, are notoriously coy about excretion. Their lavatories have a remote-controlled seat that not only plays white noise to cover the dark noise, but also thoughtfully warms your bum.

    A heated loo seat is genius. Remember your grandmother’s frozen lavvy in the outhouse with the wind whistling through the open window, spiders lurking and squares of the Daily Mirror hanging from the wall on a string? Later that night, if you were especially flexible, you could read ‘Ruby Murray’s “Softly Softly” Climbs the Charts!’ printed blurrily on your own backside.

    And cut seamlessly from that scene, scored by a brass band, to your puzzling introduction to a bidet on your first hotel holiday. ‘It’s to wash out your smalls,’ said my mother — and she meant it. My children, more well-travelled, never questioned the bidet in the hotel bathroom. Indeed, on holiday in the 1980s in Cyprus, where the pop song ‘Last Night a DJ Saved My Life’ played nightly during the buffet dinner, my seven-year-old son asked, ‘But how? How did the bidet save her life?’

    In 2015, as driverless cars prepare to hit the roads and people 3D-print their own loft extensions, I marvel that we still have toilet cubicles so poky that to get out you have to back up against the loo and take a contortionist’s squeeze round the inwardly opening door, before bursting forth across an empty space the size of a squash court to get to the sinks. The sinks. Do the taps gush forth when they sense your approach and will they ever turn off again? Is the hand dryer a slow weak blast that takes six minutes to bake soap onto your hands or the terrifying dipping-in one that flays the skin from your bones? I could go on — don’t get me started on loo rolls: I would need 50 different samples, a cute labrador puppy and someone to origami the last sheet to really make the point.

    Perhaps the truth is that we’re ambivalent about progress. Give me an empathetic bathroom designer — but don’t ring too many changes. In the middle of the night, I like to know where I am.