There were many things bad about the Victorian era; think workhouses, pollution and child labour. But one thing Victorians in Britain could rightly be proud of - and about which their modern counterparts should be heartily ashamed - was the provision of rightly-named Public Conveniences.
Some of these were positively temples to hygiene, boasting the latest in plumbing and beautiful tile-work. After all, why should life's necessities be reduced to the ugly and crass? And in big cities, such as London, they were found at the most convenient locations: along major thoroughfares, at tube stations and near tourist attractions. No longer, alas.
This contrasts markedly with the situation in large Far Eastern cities such as Seoul in South Korea, for example. There every underground station seems to boast a loo - very well-patronised (I can speak only of the Gents'), especially in the evening, when office-workers typically go out for a drink after the office and need to make a pit-stop on the way home.
Contrast that with the shameful reality in London, which likes to present itself as the world's leading Global City. With a few notable exceptions, the capital's public loos, including those in Underground stations, have closed. Where they do still exist - as at Westminster - some charge an outrageous 50 pence to get in. 'Spending a penny' will soon become a matter of 'spending a pound' - always presuming you can find somewhere legal to do it.
No wonder lads (and presumably lasses) on a night out sometimes find themselves caught short and resort to peeing in the street. That was exactly what Victorian public conveniences were designed to prevent. But can one legitimately blame the transgressors? Where else are they meant to go?
There are certain restaurants and pubs which proclaim the fact that their facilities are available to the general public -during opening hours, of course - but many also quite specifically declare that they are not. So what is the poor person in need meant to do? It's all very well to say they should (like Mrs Thatcher, famously) control, their bladders from dawn till dusk. But many can't.
That is not only true of those who go out binge-drinking. Britain, like many so-called developed countries, has an increasingly aged population. Throughout much of Europe, North America and East Asia, in particular, the number of over-60s (let alone over-80s) has risen exponentially. And it is a well-known fact that older people, especially older men, find it less easy to 'contain themselves' than their youthful counterparts. Why should they be faced with the humiliation of being caught short, through no fault of their own, simply because no facilities are available?
In my own borough of Tower Hamlets, for example, public conveniences have almost entirely disappeared, apart from a few French-style coin-operation contraptions at places such as the Mile End bus station. The number of public houses (which include facilities) has dropped sharply, reflecting not just the high percentage of Muslims in the borough but also the fact that people often prefer to socialise at home these days - after all, it is much cheaper.
But that doesn't solve the problem of those who need to spend a penny on their way home from a night out. No wonder the tell-tale traces are there in the streets around major tube-stations. But local residents should not have to put up with such unhygienic and unsightly practices. The Victorians didn't, so why should we?
The responsibility usually lies with local councils, many of whom complain that they cannot afford to maintain public loos, or else find it difficult to protect them from vandalism. The first argument is all about civic priorities: what is more of a priority than hygiene? The second relates to the question of keeping public facilities staffed. Which is better, to maintain people on the dole, or to pay someone to look after loos properly, and with pride, in the best cases?
Seaside towns, such as Eastbourne and Bournemouth, understand the need to provide facilities, not only for their resident elderly but also for visitors. I would like to see London, in the run-up to next year's Olympics, embrace its responsibilities in this domain. If it does, Victorian philanthropists will be cheering from beyond the grave.
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