The toilet on Gospel Oak station, where I used to pick up my grand-daughter after school, is OK. Despite the railway being on an embankment it’s accessible. I rarely have to wait and it’s not coin-operated. It isn’t always clean or particularly dry but the lock works and you can walk straight in. It’s open for most of the day (unlike those – recently upgraded, I notice – on nearby Parliament Hill Fields which close after dark.) It’s not perfect but it is part of my mental map. It’s close to my destination some days and on my route somewhere else on others. Provided you have a Freedom Pass you can get in quickly – unlike this one in a retail hub two miles away about which my colleague writes with some enthusiasm:
The toilets at Kilburn Underground Station have been permanently closed due to drug usage. They will be opened only for elderly people and disabled people. Ask at the window for help. There is a disabled toilet on the platform but I am not sure which side. It is for the use of elderly people and disabled. It requires a special key which opens the main entrance door which then closes and entry to the loo is through a second door. There is obviously a pull cord in case of emergency. The key which is called (I think) a Radar key – not sure, can be bought from Amazon costing £3. Of course, the lift needs to be working to get to the platform!!!
Waitrose on Finchley Road today: upstairs – but open, clean and working
That’s not good enough, is it? Radar key or no Radar key, Kilburn Station is not on my mental map. Mostly, because I need – from anxious concern and practical necessity – to feel in control. I have a swollen prostate – ‘a common condition among men over 50 years of age’ – and I’m 70. My bladder and brain miscommunicate and the need to pee can surface fast and overwhelmingly. I must always empty my bladder before I leave the house. And I don’t drink much while I’m out. I fear an accident and the abjection that will follow from warm, wet-fronted trousers. Returning home I’m often stood on the doorstep shaking with anxiety and discomfort, all too conspicuously rubbing myself to deter an emission. And as I burst into the downstairs toilet I rarely avoid a last minute leak. This is now so persistent a problem that I am considering wearing pads. This still feels at odds with my sense of identity, implying I must pull myself together and counter the problem. Years ago, Professor Peter Millard, teaching the first year gerontology certificate at Birkbeck, used to demonstrate how men can empty the urethra – putting pressure with one hand on the muscle between anus and scrotum and holding the penis with the other. Millard would do this routine fully clothed, of course, but it was both a comic turn and a good piece of practical advice – and effective as ‘life-long learning’ given I never had to make use of the information for thirty-odd years. So I’ve adopted new practices. I take appropriate medication and I’ve adjusted my behaviour. I don’t want an operation and for the time being I can cope: this problem, like losing my glasses, is part of a new normal. But it’s not an excuse for inaction.
Lockdowns have brought the problem home more starkly. Not all destinations have toilets. I rarely use public transport and on Saturday we walked the three and a half miles from Wood Green to Newington Green to admire Maggi Hambling’s controversial tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft. There was a sudden downpour which coincided with my urgent need to pee. We were second in the queue for the fancy 24-hour self-cleaning cubicle where you must pay 20p without the Radar key. Thankfully, Polly had the coins, but as we went in – together – she inserted one before the door had closed. This seemed to throw the mechanism. It didn’t see us as legitimate and an automated voice kept telling us to leave. With our would-be successors giving loud advice I, with the automatic door sliding back and to, relieved myself with my back to the waiting public – an option not open to Polly. With the machine seemingly unable to correct itself the waiting queue, denied access, irritably dispersed. I felt selfish as we ramped up the pace for fifteen minutes to Clissold Park for her to use the first alternative. So much for artificial intelligence. Always read the instructions.
Kilburn Older Voices Exchange: protest on World Toilet Day 2020 – these Thatcher-era loos on Victoria Road NW6 has been closed for years
Why do we put up with this? And is it not, on World Toilet Day, with millions of people round the world denied access to sanitation, just an expression of western privilege to even ask the question? But misery comes in many forms and we can support those struggles without sidelining our own. And this one will take effort, make no mistake. There have been a number of relatively quick wins for the age-friendly movement in recent years. Restoring a decent public toilet system, guided more by social democratic consistency than neo-liberal choice, has not been among them. Today PAIL and KOVE launch our five-point Toilet Manifesto for London to demand action by responsible public bodies to bring older people’s needs better into focus and build an angry, practical politics from the pressure of our concerns. Access to a public toilet must be understood as a necessity rather than a convenience. As Owen Hatherley put it last year in a radical proposal to mandate ‘community toilet’ schemes:
The key issue, if you have Crohn’s or colitis, isn’t what sort of toilet there is, but that you can use it, and immediately… Austerity has forced us to contemplate the previously unthinkable: the legally mandated public use of private toilets… we can now imagine the utopian dream of a Socialist Toilet League coming to pass.
The five point Toilet Manifesto for London
In the London Plan (in accordance with World Health Organisation age-friendly principles) the Greater London Authority (GLA) should make explicit the need to provide and maintain free accessible public and community toilet facilities and support the obligations specified below:
1 Community toilet provision is a public health responsibility which all London councils must acknowledge, and engage with, those protected under the Public Sector Equality Duty.
2 Boroughs should produce an annual toilet strategy to cover all community-based provision and identify a named lead officer to develop and monitor all aspects of provision.
3 There should be coordinated provision of information about toilets in digital, hard copy and accessible formats – the GLA should research how the older public use such information paying particular attention to minority views and experience.
4 The GLA should make the provision of community toilets a planning condition for all new developments of more than five hundred dwellings and audit the provision of public and community toilets in all London town centres.
5 London’s older citizens and campaigners should monitoring and scrutinise toilet provision where they live and identify neighbourhoods in need of investment and improvement.
Period charm: public pressure on Camden Council a few years back kept these elegant urinals open on South End Green. But where is everyone?