Decorated toilets are displayed as part of a public art installation titled 'C'mon, give a shit' to mark World Toilet Day. Photo: Getty.
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The Hovel’s lavatory is dead – long live the toilet, khazi, bog, or whatever you want to call it

We got a new toilet.

We have a new toilet in the Hovel. Or is it a lavatory? Being déclassé, I have never been able to remember which is the word you must never use in front of polite society. Anyway, that thing you piss in. I consider squeamishness one of the more useless reactions to a world that is unavoidably full of “oomska” (to use Uncle Monty’s term) but even I was beginning to get fed up with the old one. In a colour that, in a paint catalogue of unusual honesty, would be described as “diseased peach” and dating from the early 1970s, its innards had become so rusted and manky that even the rudimentary flush mechanism had ceased to function.

Its decline, like that of an invalid, could be marked in stages. The float either floated too much or too little so it never thought its cistern was full and the days and nights were accompanied by the endless hiss of water coming in and the endless trickle of water going out of the overflow pipe. I know the plumber’s old trick of bending the float’s arm to put an end to precisely this kind of nonsense but (a) I could never remember whether to bend it up or down and (b) it was so oxidised anyway, it looked as though any attempt to bend it one way or another would snap it in two.

Then the pin connecting one bit to another failed, or rusted away, or something, and even though I and Piotr the plumber (yes, a Polish plumber, golly, how original this comedy is; but the truth is that he is Polish and he is called Piotr and he’s very nice, too) would alternately try to jerry-rig something Heath Robinson-esque to make it work – the idea being that it seemed crazy to spend hundreds of pounds on a new khazi when all that was wrong with it were some bits of metal worth about 3p – it got to the stage where the only way to flush the thing was to take off the lid of the cistern and pull up the lift rod (correct term) yourself. 

This involved immersing your hand and forearm in the water, with the result that when people came to visit after a long journey and said, “Can I use your loo?” the only proper response, until they’d had a few drinks to nerve themselves, was: “No.”

Once I’d explained, they saw my point. But it is still surprising how many otherwise intelligent people confuse or equate the water that sits in the cistern with the water that sits in the pan below. Our own Laurie Penny, who is otherwise one of the smartest people I know, was particularly obdurate on this point the last time she came to visit and her cries of protest when I explained the modus operandi to her were long and loud. 

So now we have a new bog. 

(Is that the right word?) It’s smaller, neater and whiter than the old one and you now push a button to flush it; in fact, you have a choice of buttons and you don’t have to be a genius to predict that when it fails, which it most certainly will, you won’t be able to fix it, however temporarily, with a bit of coat hanger. 

The wall behind it bears signs of the trauma of the sick toilet’s removal – it had, over the decades, basically welded itself to the brickwork – and the cheap, small-scale reproduction of The Fighting Temeraire that I had wittily hung up behind it is now off-centre and doesn’t go so well – but at least everyone can relieve themselves without getting their arms wet.

And so the bathroom is beginning to resemble Theseus’s ship, or grandfather’s axe, that old philosophical noggin-scratcher whereby the replacement of individual components raises the question of the historical integrity of the whole: the sink was replaced a few months earlier and now has a plug that doesn’t work instead of taps that don’t work, which is much better. Meanwhile, the bath, the size of a hippo and completely unusable for about five different reasons, sulks beneath its burden of its clothes horses and reminds me and every visitor that this is not like other bathrooms. 

Everyone else, with one or two exceptions, now has a better shithouse (any better?) than I do. These days, the smallest room (Jesus, what a twee coinage) is meant to be pristine, a place you could eat your dinner off or perform surgery in. Mine is a relic of an older time, only authentic, unlike the pathetic recreations of medieval huts at historical fairs. And it does not, like today’s sleek, pampered thing, pretend to be anything other than what it is. Whether it’s legal is another matter altogether. 

It’s a jakes. That’s the word.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Burnout Britain

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.