Funny the ways you can learn about a book. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones alerted me to one recently, 43 years after his death. I was at Somerset House for the exhibition of photos marking the band’s half-century, and one shot saw them leaving Heathrow Airport in 1966, bound for America. Brian, in a blazer whose stripes were quite shockingly vibrant (ten years later it would have felt perfectly at home on Ronnie Barker as he read the news), was carrying a book. A small, slim volume, its title was hidden away in a tiny font, but the photo had been blown up so large you could just make out that title: The Good Loo Guide.
Of course rock stars and loos are far from strangers to each other, but I couldn’t imagine a Rolling Stone needing a published guide to the myriad delights offered by the khazis of the day. Instead Jones must have been reading it for fun – and with a title like that, I wanted to do likewise. Amazon worked its magic, and within a couple of days I was leafing through Jonathan Routh’s wonderful guide to the best place to spend a penny in 1960s London. Secondhand dealers’ postage policy being what it is, a penny was all I’d had to spend on the book. Its 1966 cover price was 3s 6d.
The Good Loo Guide is nothing more than a glorified pamphlet, really, with a pleasingly pink cover and witty cartoons by John Glashan (whose work later appeared in the Spectator). Yet the idea is so beautiful and the execution so sharp that you have to finish the book in a single sitting (as it were). The introduction makes several recommendations, including one that ‘Westminster City Council should end its ridiculous charge of 6d “to use the mirror.”’ This used to be the arrangement, apparently. Routh also calls for better graffiti. ‘The general standard remains abysmally low and subject matter concerns itself almost exclusively with anatomical trivia. Issue by the attendant of a suitable pencil at a small extra charge, and approval by him of the text, might be worth attempting as a solution.’
The reviews themselves are organised geographically. Victoria station’s newly-opened facilities get the highest rating (four stars): ‘what splendour, what a Xanadu of hygiene (and with music too).’ Both Gents and Ladies offered baths and changing rooms, while the former boasted ‘attendants who press your suit while you wait … Ideal for bathing and changing after the office before going on to a Ball’. Over in Trafalgar Square, you could choose between the National Gallery loos (‘the warmest in all London, a fact well-known among members of the tramping fraternity’) and the public ones in the square itself, where ‘music is provided at certain times by a happy singing attendant abetted by an accordionist outside the door’.
It’s been fun seeing which conveniences are still convenient. Many of the council-run ones have closed, including a quaint 4-man wrought-iron and porcelain shelter in Star Yard behind the High Court – the structure is still there, cruelly padlocked. An exquisite little red-brick building in the north-east corner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields survives, though it’s depressing that Camden Council now see fit to display a sign telling you how to wash your hands. When it comes to department stores, Selfridges no longer, as far as I recall, provide paper bearing their name (had they really thought that through?) Your best bet, of course, remains the posh hotel. Just look confident as you stroll through reception. Claridge’s and Brown’s are both still top-notch places in which to conduct your business. A friend of mine swears by the Ritz, especially since his hero Bob Dylan held the door of their Gents open for him. ‘Thanks, Bob, that’s made my day,’ said David. ‘Me too, man,’ came the reply.
An incredible detail from the book is that even as late as 1966 you could pitch up to Parliament and ask to use the loo. ‘Make your request of a policeman at the Strangers Entrance. He may direct you to a Gents immediately to the right inside’ or ‘beyond the Central Lobby to grander establishments which look more like the Seats of Power.’ Even more amazingly, similar hospitality was offered by the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. ‘Turn left into the library through Upper Brook Street entrance and right at the shelves containing US Presidents.’ These days it’s tempting to register a protest by using one of the ugly concrete barriers scarring the square outside. But who wants to get intimate with Guantanomo?
The book’s only major omission seems to be Lord’s cricket ground, where the white marble urinals behind the Edrich stand were (and are) a thing of beauty. Sadly Scotts of Coventry Street (club? restaurant?) has closed, so we can’t enjoy the facilities where ‘not six men together would be able to break down one of the cubicle doors’. This, incidentally, was a recommendation by a Miss Jennifer Paterson. Has to be, doesn’t it?
The Good Loo Guide is precisely the sort of book that won’t exist in the future. It’ll be an app instead. I suppose this makes more sense – easier to update, more scope for reader (or rather user) recommendations. Technology has already started playing its part in the capital’s loo life; for a while an anonymous worker at Waterloo station was Tweeting the entry code to the staff toilets. But apps are rarely conversation starters. In one of those joyous coincidences that fate throws up to brighten our lives, a woman approached me the other day as I stood holding the book in Parliament Square. ‘I can’t believe you’ve got The Good Loo Guide!’ she said. Had she seen it at the Stones exhibition as well? ‘No, I’m a Canadian academic studying here, doing my dissertation on London’s underground toilets.’ There followed a fascinating chat about London’s loos. She’s called Sarah McCabe, by the way, and would no doubt welcome any subterranean toilet tips in the comments section below.
The other thing about apps, of course, is that you can’t keep a pile of them in the smallest room at home. So go on, treat yourself to a copy of The Good Loo Guide. It really is a great toilet book.
More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us.