Miles Kington: Ladies and Gents, when is a toilet not a toilet?

The last time I had a problem finding a loo was in our local pub. The only sign I could see said 'Yertis'
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The Independent Online

Not that my mother would have let me go. World Lavatory Summit, yes. World Toilet Summit, no, for she was one of those old-fashioned people who thought that what you call a toilet makes a difference.

I followed her lead for a long while in calling it a lavatory, but unfortunately most of the population do not, so I was often caught up in conversations such as this:

Me: Excuse me, can you tell me where the lavatory is?

Girl: The what?

Me: Er, the toilet.

Girl: It's over there.

The last time I had a real problem with finding a loo was in our local pub, the Hop Pole. When we first moved down here to Wiltshire and went there for a drink, I asked someone where the Gents was and he pointed to a side door and said: "There's the sign."

The only sign I could see said "Yertis." "Yertis ?" I said. "That's the way they say 'Here it is' in Wiltshire," he said. "You ask where the Gents is. We say, 'Yertis.'" Fernuff.

I do not suppose, however, that the experts in Belfast were discussing what to call a toilet. Nor what pictures or playful pictograms to put on the door for illiterates or foreigners. On the whole we seem to have settled down to the male and female outlines: one with skirt, one with trousers. (I once tried to persuade an American that because men wore kilts in Scotland, and Scots women wore trousers for warmth, the symbols were the other way round north of the border, but he may not have believed me, as I never heard of him being arrested up there.)

No, I think what they were discussing in Belfast was the right of everyone to have access to public toilets, which is something we generally take for granted. (Unless we live in Bath, that is, where the council has been gradually closing all its public facilities such as swimming pools and lavatories in the last few years, to help pay for the unopened spa, Nicholas Grimshaw's flawed and waterlogged masterpiece. No wonder there are so many people staggering round Bath of an evening. They are dying for the loo.)

I am intrigued to learn from the toilet summit website that the average person goes to the loo 2,500 times a year, which is nearly seven times a day, and that the first cubicle you come to in a public toilet is the one that is least used, and therefore the cleanest...

Is all this toilet talk making you feel uneasy? Of course it is. We British don't like to talk about such things. It's just something you do, and get out of the way. Yet I have had some of my most enlightening experiences in and around the Gents.

Once I was about to go into the Gents in a motorway service area, when a man came out of the Ladies talking into a mobile. "God, I went in the wrong place," he was saying. This seems to prove that men really cannot do two things at once.

I also remember being in the Gents in Terminal Four in Heathrow, when two airport workers came in, chatting merrily. One was white, one was black. They both had a pee and walked over to the basins to wash their hands. The hot water was extremely hot and both of them leapt back, scalded.

"I'd have thought you'd have been all right with your skin," said the white guy to the black guy, which is the sort of thing you only say to someone you know very well. The black guy looked at him. "I'm only a heathen, not a rhino," he said, and they both went out, roaring with laughter. I think that is the most witty and graceful treatment of race I have ever heard.

More toilet summitry tomorrow.

Miles Kington's book 'Someone Like Me: Tales From a Borrowed Childhood', is published by Headline at £16.99. To order a copy at the special price of £15.50 (free p&p) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or order online at www.independentbooksdirect