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2 April 2015

Will Self: Stuck in a train toilet, I see the future of urban Britain mapped out

The first toilet I got to was of the robotic variety, and the automatic door was broken – confirming all my unease – but the second was of the traditional type, so I shuffled happily inside.

By Will Self

Can I be alone in finding the new toilets on trains peculiarly unsettling? There is something about all those buttons and lights, about the way the curved door groans shut, that contrives to make these smallest rooms feel provisional and exposed. I miss the heft and security of a toilet door you can shut and bolt manually: what automation gives, it can so easily take away, leaving your buttocks exposed to the commuting multitudes. Anyway, I was meditating on this the other day as I wandered along the 7.13pm Brighton-to-London train. The first toilet I got to was of the robotic variety, and the automatic door was broken – confirming all my unease – but the second was of the traditional type, so I shuffled happily inside, snibbed, and was preparing to answer the call of nature when I noticed that the toilet seat was haloed by a photographic transfer depicting the London Eye Ferris wheel.

Illustration: Jackson Rees

It wasn’t the end of this decalcomania by any means: the dinky sink was backed by Big Ben; the ventilation panel in the door was bracketed by the dome of St Paul’s and Nelson’s Column; and the soap dispenser was implanted in the façade of Westminster Cathedral, while one of Battersea Power Station’s chimneys formed a sort of trompe l’oeil pilaster. So I sat there, lurching towards Three Bridges yet surrounded by images of London, and naturally my thoughts turned to the way images of places are stuck on to other places.

Of course, the whole go-round of commoditisation depends on images – but while you seldom see a photograph of a brand new toaster stuck on to an old one, you will often see a beautiful Barbadian beach adhering tenaciously to a grotty billboard in Solihull, or an Andean mountaintop looming above a jumble of cardboard boxes outside the service entrance of a Tesco superstore near Uttoxeter. Particularly at this time of year, the vertical surfaces of the cities and towns we neglect are camouflaged with the holiday destinations we fervidly desire; indeed, for the next few months many of us will happily wade through our daily shit while fantasising about our fortnight of sauntering barefoot across sable sands. But it’s not only exotic places we plaster across our ordinary spaces; in recent years the city’s exterior has become a corkboard on to which are pinned images of putative interiors.

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No new development, whether it be office, industrial, commercial or residential, is complete without its own computer visualisation of how it will look once built, stuck to a massive hoarding that obscures the actual construction. Once upon a time such images were simple statements of intent; however, in recent years they have come to embody subtle narratives concerning the good life. Giant and pristine thirtysomethings sip cappuccino, romp in Terry towelling robes, or, clad entirely in Cameroonian casuals (think a pink Pringle cashmere woolly loosely knotted around a lightly tanned neck), stroll hand in hand past postmodernist water features. As our housing stock grows older and older, so these Potemkin village posters grow more and more strident – exhorting us to aspire to being anywhere else than where we in fact are.

The Polish-American mathematician and philosopher Alfred Korzybski coined the expression “the map is not the territory” to express the idea that there is a fundamental disjunction between a representation and what it represents. He believed that it is in the depiction of geographical features that this is most clearly demonstrated – after all, how could anyone mistake a few ink marks on a crinkly bit of paper for a hill or a wood? Nevertheless, Korzybski realised, we do: I, for one, have had the deranging experience of staring uncomprehendingly at a vista, convinced it must be “wrong”, because a feature detailed on my map was nowhere to be seen. The errancy used to creep in when we were confused about our location, our orientation, or both – but nowadays, with GPS-enabled hand-held technology, we always know where we are, and which way we’re facing has become quite immaterial.

Why? Well, if the map is not simply of the territory, but stuck on to the territory; and if the map doesn’t represent the territory as it is – albeit at a reduced scale – but rather the territory as we would like it to be, either now or some time in the future, and at an enhanced scale, then who can dispute that its epistemic value is greater than that of some scabrous office block or muddy building site? We no longer live in real cities, towns and villages, but rather in virtualisations of bizarre, chimerical places: the Blue Danube waltzes along beside the Manchester Shipping Canal, while the Potala Palace hovers mystically above a Portaloo…

…Which brings me, rather neatly, back to the 7.13pm Brighton-to-London train. Why, I thought to myself, need I go to the Smoke at all, when I’ve experienced most of its iconic architecture simply by squatting in this malodorous cubicle? And so I rose, girded myself up and detrained at Three Bridges, only to find myself standing in front of the Bridge of Sighs. I would’ve been discombobulated had I just left Brighton – because so far as I’m aware there’s no direct rail service from there to Venice. However, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express departs daily from St Pancras Station, an image of which was plastered across the bin in the facility I’d lately quit. So the old toilet was, indeed, deeply reassuring.