The humiliations of childhood remain vivid in the memory.
I remember with great clarity being five years old at a family party at my grandparents’ house. I was waiting outside the only lavatory. My mother was busy, my father was the culprit behind the locked door and I didn’t know what to do.
In the end, I hid behind a door in the entrance hall and watched the growing pool spread across the polished wooden floor, creeping towards the thick patterned carpet. Hoping no one would notice my sodden dress, I moved away, glad I wouldn’t be there when grown-ups found the telltale puddle. I was utterly humiliated.
Two years later, I watched fascinated as a little boy in the front row of our school classroom, produced a seeping tide of liquid underneath his desk. He ducked his head, ashamed and wretched. We stared, relieved it wasn’t us.
The agony of children gives way to the embarrassment of young girls suddenly “coming on” and bleeding on to uniforms, skirts and seats, leaking pregnant women and mortified new mothers with lacerated muscles, desperate for the loo and unable to find one – and panic-stricken parents stuck in a shop with no facilities, unable to change a baby’s smelly nappy.
Then there’s the frustration of disabled people unable to find an accessible toilet. And the agony of being old and frail, no longer able to travel for fear of an “accident”, unable to move fast when needed, enduring an ever-present dread that clothing may smell.
I remember in the late 1990s, trying to find a lavatory for my Dad in a pub off Castle Square. There was no public toilet and so my modest father, by then afflicted with prostrate problems and dementia, had to be manoeuvred past young drinkers before his clothing was soaked. My mother was near tears. I don’t think we came to town again.
Human beings need decent clean lavatories. It is surely one of the most basic things that any decent council should provide. And yet here in Brighton and Hove, over the past three decades, public toilets have been closed. The ones we have left are in an appalling state. We complain and nothing is done. We take this for granted.
Our city, which loudly claims to be “inclusive”, by its actions shows itself indifferent to the needs of residents and visitors who have the misfortune to be very young, sick or incontinent, disabled, female, pregnant, frail or elderly. Which, of course, is most of us.
The toilets which seem best to symbolise the city’s indifference, are those in the Pavilion Gardens, which have for years been in a disgraceful state. This is extraordinary because the Royal Pavilion, with the Dome and its estate, are together the jewels in Brighton’s crown. Since the destruction of the West Pier, they have no rival.
Each year, tens of thousands of tourists and residents come to these iconic buildings to visit the gardens, listen to buskers, picnic on the grass and visit David Sewell’s iconic Pavilion Gardens Café. David’s rock cakes are as famous as the Pavilion Gardens loos are notorious.
Over the years, I have regularly visited there, finding appalled tourists and ashen-faced students new to the city, as well as cursing residents, ducking in and out of the cubicles vainly trying to find one with loo paper or a working lock on at least one door. I’ve seen elderly women and young girls turn away rather than wade through urine and stunned tourists appalled by the lack of soap and sometimes even water.
Just recently I found the women’s toilet packed with small school-children, obviously on a school visit. I looked on appalled, as their harassed teachers negotiated obscene graffiti, lack of door locks, wet seats and the usual absence of paper and soap. I’d have used the women’s disabled loo, but it had been out of order for several weeks.
I’ve visited twice since then. The first time there was no change. On the second occasion, the situation was worse. The people supervising the toilet had forgotten to lock it for three nights. Bedding was piled by the closed disabled toilet with plastic bags and dirt. I took a photograph. As I left I saw a rat chase a squirrel into the undergrowth by the café.
There is no elegant way to finish this piece. We who use the toilets simply don’t care who was, or is, legally responsible for the security of the gardens or the supervision and cleanliness of the toilets.
We just want those who manage our iconic historic buildings, parks and gardens, who promote the city’s tourism and who are charged with protecting our health and safety, to stop buck-passing, put their heads together and sort this out.
Jean Calder is a campaigner and journalist. For more of her work, click here.
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