Decorated toilets are displayed as part of a public art installation titled 'C'mon, give a shit' to mark World Toilet Day. Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.