From buttoned-up Britain to urine nation

I've been putting it off, hopping up and down, tensing first one buttock then the other, waiting until the pain is insupportable . . . but although it's a dirty job, someone has to let go and ask the question: why is it that so many men piss in the streets nowadays? Time was when the average British male would no more publicly urinate than he would fornicate or defecate - but now the streets round my way run yellow. Indeed, there's an alley opposite my house that I can see from where I'm typing this column, and if I chance to glance in that direction I'll often clock some perfectly ordinary-looking chap duck into it, unzip, then splutter.

I've got so fed up with it that on one occasion, when I saw two men taking a dual leak, I went across and asked one of them where he lived. "Why d'you wanna know?" he said. "Simple," I replied. "So I can come round and piss outside your house."

Of course, I'm not so ignorant as to imagine that the taboo against al fresco relief was always in place, but I should imagine that apart from wartime it endured for much of the 20th century. Certainly, I can never remember seeing British men do this when I was a child - it was a dirty foreign habit, indulged in by the likes of the French, whose pissoirs were in any case barely decent. Even in the late 1990s a trip to Paris always began with a distinct urinous tang as you stepped forth from the Gare du Nord, whereas now the smell hits you at St Pancras.

Crossing continence

The obvious answer to this question is that the tsunami of wee, far from being the result of some collective slackening of restraint, is simply a function of the decline of the public toilet. Certainly the public toilet is in decline - if you didn't realise this already at a subjective level, then you have only to log on to the British Toilet Association's website to be confronted with the ugly facts. The association may be vigorously lobbying for improved facilities, but it will take more than a "toilet twinning" programme (launched by Paul Daniels), or Joan Bakewell writing on the social isolation of the incontinent elderly, to reverse the trend.

You might have thought that in the dark ages before homosexual law reform, given that public toilets were a favoured location for casual gay sex, there would have been a move to shut them then; but au contraire, it's since 1967 that they've been flushed down the pan. Frankly, were I to find a clean, well-lit, open public toilet in a central city location today, I'd be inclined - in the spirit of Sir Edmund Hillary - to ask the first man I alighted on to have sex with me in one of the stalls, simply because it was there.

The burning irony of the whole situation is that what's done for the public toilet is the huge expansion of public eating and drinking. There are now so many pubs, cafés and restaurants in British towns and cities that local councils obviously feel their provision has been outsourced, in effect. Yet it's precisely all this bibbing that makes men so desperate, especially as it isn't when you're snug in the establishment that you want to go, but usually five minutes after you've left and the cold air has done its work.

Revenue streams

I've been fortunate in this respect over the years. My children are widely spaced in age, so I've had little ones for two decades. The most stony-faced barman usually relents if you barrel in propelling a small boy and trilling, "Can we use your loo?" They're not to know that the febrile bladder is actually your own. However, as time passes and my prostate swells, I see a knock-kneed future ahead; either I will be condemned to be clenched, or I will head up the alley to do my grubby business.

I have so far confined myself to the matter of male incontinence; this is because, despite the even more parlous condition of women's conveniences - and the disadvantageous stalls-to-urinals ratio they face to begin with - women manage to retain decorum.

Unfortunately, there are some signs that the mania is spreading. I saw an episode of Dragons' Den before Christmas, in which some of the wannabe entrepreneurs were followed up. One of them was a woman who had invented a sort of funnel contraption enabling women to piss upright, and despite having been rejected by the Dragons she had gone ahead with the business. Her sales figures are now so good that she's pissing all over them - figuratively speaking.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war