Very nice. But what does it do?

Bidets? Don't need them, say the French. Gotta have one, says the modern British homeowner
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Elizabeth Morgan called herpractical and amusing guide to home- owning in France, Can We Afford the Bidet?. According to her book, you almost certainly can. Bidets in France, complete with taps and plunger plugs, can be picked up for between pounds 7 and pounds 12 from the local second-hand store, she explains.

The reason they are so often found in second-hand stores is because they are going out of fashion in France. The younger generation thinks them rather passe. They are then snapped up by Brits who think them rather chic.

Elizabeth Morgan is an actress who has owned homes in France for the past 20 years. When she bought her first ruin for pounds 900, she gave the plumber a list of her requirements for the bathroom. "I trust you are going to have a bidet, madam," he added, in a voice which suggested this was compulsory. She has since become a total convert. "I think they are wonderful," she said, "particularly in hot weather when you are feeling a bit sticky."

When she installed her first French import in her English home in the early Seventies it raised plenty of eyebrows. What exactly was it for, people asked. Originally, she believes, the bidet had two purposes: it served as a half-way bathing measure for washing the bottom and genitals, and it was used as a form of contraception to wash out any unwanted sperm.

In Britain, where people do not even like saying the word "bottom", never mind talking about such personal matters, bidets became a source of jokes of the Carry On type. The film Grand Slam, in which Elizabeth Morgan acted, included a scene in which the Welsh rugby union team experimented with this unlikely contraption in Paris.

Despite our awkwardness with the subject, bidets have come to be considered an essential accessory in modern English homes. On Crosby Homes' new development at Symphony Court in Birmingham city centre, bidets are top of the list of extras asked for by customers. The developers suspect it is to do with status rather than practicality. People have one in their current homes or their friends have one, so, even though it takes up a lot of space, they expect to see a bidet in the bathroom.

At Haversham Place, a ritzy new development in Highgate, north London, the developer Octagon specifies that the master bathrooms in its pounds 1m- plus homes have "the additional benefit of a bidet" with gold-finish taps and fittings. Is this to please a particular nationality of buyer?

Trevor Abrahmsohn, of the selling agents Glentree Estates, says not. "Bidets are invariably asked for and not used," he says. "They are like exercise bikes and saunas. Exercise bikes are bought by people in their forties and fifties, who hang their suits on them. Saunas are used to store suitcases. A Middle Eastern buyer might expect to see something like a bidet, but it is not a requirement for the Western market."

He thinks the bidet is symptomatic of evolving attitudes towards bathrooms. "Twenty years ago, a luxury five-bedroom house would have had two bathrooms," he said. "Today, a luxury five-bedroom house has five bathrooms, with two washbasins in the master suite. How often do the husband and wife actually use the basins at the same time? Perhaps once? People's expectations about hygiene have changed over the years."

The Bradford and Bingley Building Society recently ran a poster advertising campaign in Yorkshire and London, posing imponderable questions. One of them was: "Why don't bidets have seats?" When asked for the answer, it deferred to the British Bathroom Council, which apparently claims it is to do with men and women requiring seats facing opposite ways. How come this does not apply to lavatories?

'Can We Afford the Bidet?' is published by Lennard Associates, Harpenden, Hertfordshire, pounds 9.99.

Ten things to do with a bidet

1/ Wash your feet

2/ Bath a baby

3/ Get the sand out of toys

4/ Rinse clothes

5/ Keep bottles cool

6/ Make a collection of soaps

7/ Use as a home for house plants

8/ Stand on to change the bathroom lightbulb

9/ Dump wet swimsuits

10/ Keep magazines and other bathroom literature