As a stand-up comedian living in the north-west of England, I frequently find myself travelling down to London on the train for gigs. This means that over the past few years I have developed a healthy dislike for Virgin Trains' on-board toilets. If you've ever done a similar journey then you'll know which toilets I'm on about. They're the ones where, as you lock the door, instead of hearing the comforting sound of a bolt sliding into place, you simply hear a mechanical, computerised voice which says: Toilet door locked. I swear this reassures absolutely no-one! Not content, it then goes on:
Please don't flush nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex's sweater, hopes, dreams or goldfish down this toilet.
Any unfortunate person who inadvertently laughs at this empty, soulless excuse for comedy immediately feels a tiny piece of their soul evaporate into the ether, never to be seen again. Because this is Richard Branson and his senior managers sat round the boardroom table brainstorming how Virgin can look cool and funny. This is humour written to please a demographically representative market focus group. This is the death of comedy.
Of course, as a disabled person I fully appreciate the efforts that have been made to make these toilets accessible to everyone. Only a few months ago I spent an excruciating 6 hours on an ancient east coast Virgin train to Inverness where the tantalising promise of unlimited first class free booze was quickly spoiled by the discovery that my wheelchair wouldn't fit through the door of the toilet. I then spent most of that journey with my legs crossed!
Despite improvements in access, the overriding problem with modern train toilets is that they just don't work properly. As the spaces for wheelchair users are invariably next to the toilets, I seem to spend most of my journeys constantly explaining to my fellow passengers how the door works. That's when the toilet isn't out-of-order, which seems to not be the case all too often.
My most horrific experience in a train toilet happened a few months ago. I'm sitting there, trousers round my ankles, when out of the blue comes the one sound I least want to hear right now: Toilet door is not locked. Now my hands are nowhere near the controls. I haven't touched a thing. The door has just unlocked itself.
I guess what you would do in a situation like this is stand up, waddle forward and press the button, but that's not an option for me. So I strain to lean forward as far as I can, just about manage to reach the lock with the tip of my index finger and hear the blessed phrase: Toilet door locked. But the long sigh of relief I exhale is soon cut short by the dreaded words: Toilet door is not locked.
I don't believe it. I'm locked in a battle of wills with the crap distant cousin of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey!
Anyway I need to lock the door again. I pull myself to my feet and lean forward to reach the lock whilst grabbing my wheelchair for support. But immediately I feel the chair roll from under me and I come crashing down to the floor. And as if things couldn't get any worse, as I've fallen I've accidentally hit the emergency call button.
So I'm now lying prostrate, my hairy, shitty arse exposed to the world which, take it from me is no way to meet new people! But before long, two female members of staff come running to my aid. Now by this point all I want is to be left alone to pick myself up, dust myself down and salvage what remains of my dignity. So I try to reassure them that I don't need their help:
"Please don't come in. I'm absolutely fine. Just go away!"
However they're incapable of reconciling my pleas to leave me alone with the sight of a semi-naked bloke with cerebral palsy splayed across the toilet floor. But with hindsight, what annoys me the most is not the indignity of wrestling two confused women off me whilst not wearing pants. No, the real kick in the teeth is that, after it was all over, they stubbornly refused to believe that the toilet door unlocked itself!
To hear more of my ill-fated attempts to be independent, come and see my Edinburgh Fringe show Independence at Assembly George Square until 28 August. Click here for tickets