There's a new kind of public toilet appearing in towns all over the UK. Steel-lined, seamless, utterly vandalproof. You must have seen them.
They resemble, in more ways than some people might find comfortable, a prison cell. The door is huge and thick and operates with multiple deadlocks. Lights switch themselves on and off, sensing movement within the small space. Everything is moulded, the toilet seats and urinals made of large single pieces of metal, bolted to the floor and haloed with sealant. Even the mirror is no longer glass, but a single steel plate screwed to the wall.
The design is that of Interpublic ("the first choice for public toilets"), and to me tells us much about our nation.
These toilets talk to their users. Shut yourself in and a voice, startlingly like one on an Underground train, booms out instructions at you.
"This facility is now locked. The doors are locked on a timer mechanism, and will automatically unlock in X minutes." (I think X is 15.)
"This facility is under 24-hour remote observation." (There are no visible signs of camera lenses. Are they hidden in the urinals?)
The toilets are functional. I am able to achieve my goal. Unless I want to change a child's nappy in comfort. The fold-down table provided is made of hard plastic, with no soft cushion on top. There is a strap to the child in place, but no table or ledge to put the clean nappy on while removing the dirty one.
And there is no bin. Nowhere to put a dirty nappy, a broken syringe, a sweet wrapper, or a knackered umbrella.
To wash your hands, you place them under the complete control of a box-shaped indent in the wall. Slide hands in, hold still, and wait. Soap will be dispensed. Water will gush, for a moment. Hot air will emit. You, the user, need do nothing at all. We are no longer people needing to spend a penny, we are users, asked to do nothing but empty ourselves of liquids and allow liquids to be emptied upon us.
On exiting, the steel door tells me: this facility locks automatically at night.
Exactly when night arrives, it does not explain. Quite why all the money was spent on vandal-proof, people-proof toilets that cannot be used 24 hours a day, it omits to tell.
(14th January 2004)