Sunday, October 20, 2013

A short history of toilets

When I was four and living in Greensborough my family’s toilet looked like an upright coffin in the back yard.  It had a hinged flap on the lower back wall of wooden palings which the dunny-man lifted weekly to drag out the pan.
I looked up through the flap one day and watched the stuff come out of my little sister’s bottom.  And she watched mine in turn.

In our next house in Camberwell our toilet was stuck outside at the back of the woodshed, alongside the briquettes shoot.  I collected discarded cigarette butts from my father’s ash tray and stole a pack of matches from the kitchen mantel near the stove.  I learned to light the scrap of cigarette left above the butt and used the lit stump as a soldering iron.  I pressed it lightly onto the toilet paper to form the letters of my initials.  The edge of my ES had a tiny frilled border in copper brown.

In our next house in Cheltenham, an AV Jennings special on the Farm Road estate, we had two toilets, one inside and one out.  My mother brought outdated Readers Digests from the old people's home where she worked along with the cast offs from dead people, things she thought might one day prove useful.  Old spectacles or empty spectacle cases, faded pink nightgowns, matinee jackets, and hair rollers that had lost their pins. 

My mother brought home leather belts for my brothers and father and sometimes the combs and hairbrushes that had moved through and across old peoples’ heads of hair in a way that made me cringe.  My mother had no self respect when it came to freebies.
I refused to touch anything but the Digests.  I took them outside with me into the toilet above the back veranda and read about life in America.  I looked always for the salacious, which I usually found in the movie star section.  To this end I also collected my father’s discarded Truth newspapers for the thrill of naked bodies.

When I was in primary school, a Catholic school policed by nuns, I took it into my mind that the nuns never needed to go to the toilets, nor did they eat.  Under their habits their bodies were like those of my dolls, rigid and unyielding with no holes for peeing or pooing and no digestive system at all.
The memory of potties – those enlarged cup like containers which we kept under our beds to spare us the need for travel outside in the middle of the night – stays with me, not so much for their beauty, as for the stench they left in the bedroom when we woke and the dangers of spillage en route to the outside toilet where we emptied them each morning.
It was hard to flush unwanted things away then.  They tended to hang around longer.  


Andrew said...

We watched my grandmother from the flap. She heard us giggling and was very cross. At least you had someone else to empty yours. As a kid, my father or uncle had to bury it. It became an area to grow rather good vegetables.

Jim Murdoch said...

The first toilet I remember was, of course, the one in my parents’ house. The cistern was raised up high and you flushed using a chain. I’ve always liked that particular mechanism. We replaced the coloured bathroom suite in the flat we’re now in a few years back and the loo doesn’t even have a handle just two buttons, one for a full flush and one for a light one. I don’t like it. Even a full flush doesn’t always do the job. As for the various bathrooms I’ve used over the years I can remember little. I never read whilst doing my business. Never understood how people can do that. But I do think. And very often when I’m working on something and have to relieve myself those few minutes of privacy often help me galvanise my thoughts.

I’m not fond of toilet humour. Joke about sex all you like or starving kids—I’m recalling all the tasteless jokes about Biafra we used to tell in the playground when I was at school—but leave defecation alone. Unless you’re Billy Connolly. Billy Connolly has the ability to take any subject and make it funny. And he has no problems talking about poo or jobbies as he prefers to call them. One of his best, from the early days, was The Jobby Wheecha, and it’s a masterpiece of digression. I have always wanted to write a story like this where you completely lose track of where you started off. Comedians can get away with it. Not sure it’d work on paper. Oh, you’ll need Part 4 as well; that’s when he visits the airplane toilet. His thoughts on incontinence pants are also worth hearing (jump forward to 40:07).

Anthony Duce said...

Much enjoyed.. Brought back memories of a cottage in the woods when I was a kid.. A combination woodshed/outhouse comes to mind.. As do the old Reader Digests, and other magazines read and viewed over and over at the time.

Kirk said...

Grew up poor but never outhouse or bedpan poor. May have come home from school to a house with the electricity cut off, or had my report card withheld from me because the book dues weren't paid, but alway had access to a flush toilet. Count your blessings, I guess.

Birdie said...

My mom's family was the first on the block to get a toilet and people came over to see it flush!

River said...

I remember the backyard dunny way down in the corner of our yard. The nightman would come along with his cart and whisk away the full bucket and push in the empty one in the early hours before dawn. We had a worn smooth wooden seat and a butcher's old meat hook on the side wall where cut squares of newspaper hung for our use. Sometimes mum would cut up old dressmaking patterns that had become too flimsy to be of any further use. The seat was wide, going right across the small building and on one side we kept comics and magazines for reading, but if the butcher's hook was empty, pages would get torn out and used. Eventually we got the proper toilet paper and a couple of years after that dad built a bathroom into one end of the back porch complete with matching pink bath, basin and toilet. I vaguely remember chain pull toilets that had an extra length of rope attached to the chain so smaller family members could pull it for themselves.
@kirk; we were on the "free" list at school, never paid for a text book until my own kids were in school.

A Cuban In London said...

You remind me of the only toilet in our flat in Havana when I was growing up. The only way to flush it was by using a bucket of water. If, unfortunately, you were confronted by a "floater", you had to use both strength and intelligence. Never let it be said that a turd outsmarted you! :-)

Greetings from London.