Andrew Martin: SatLav: for when The Athenaeum is closed

<i>The Independent on Sunday</i> commentator finds relief in technology
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The Independent Online

On Friday, going for a wee finally fell to computerisation. SatLav is a satellite system that directs you to the nearest public lavatory. You text the once frowned upon word "toilet" to 80097, and you get back the name of the nearest facility, providing you're in Westminster, that is, because the system only operates in that London borough.

According to Richard Chisnell, director of the British Toilet Association (that word again Nancy Mitford will be spinning in her grave): "It's a super initiative, which we thoroughly support." But it isn't going to alter the big picture, which is that there are half as many public lavatories as 10 years ago, mainly because councils have so many other calls upon their funds and there's never been any statutory requirement to supply public toilets. On this point, Mr Chisnell quickly becomes incandescent: "I mean, stop piddling about over what some donor paid some politician, sort out our society... There should be no reason to pee in the street."

Notice the swift elision of social policy and micturition, and a well-run public lavatory is indeed a civilised thing. When I was growing up in York, there was a superb, subterranean gents' in the middle of town, overseen by a "wash and brush up man", who'd shave you, or brush the dandruff off your collar. In quiet periods he'd move between the sinks and run the taps in order to test the flow of water, which was even more admirable given that he only had one leg.

I suggested to Mr Chisnell that the next best thing to a lavatory attendant was a system allowing you to register your approval or disapproval of a facility, and he agreed. But I admit that when, as sometimes happens in motorway service station toilets, I'm offered the chance to press a smiley face or a frowning one, I press the frowning one as a matter of course simply because I'm usually in a bad mood.

To promote good toilet practice, Mr Chisnell's association organises the Loo of the Year Award, and the winners for 2007 will be announced on Wednesday at the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham. There are 57 categories, to cover "all the places where there's a need to go to the toilet", hence the award for best toilet in a crematorium for example. Imagine if you'd just seen off your loved one, and the toilet paper was damp that really would be a downer.

The only positive aspect of poor lavatory provision is that it teaches what in my son's school they call "urban survival skills". I know where the gents' are on the Underground (there are two at Woodford), and which hotel toilets I can wander into. If you try the Ritz, incidentally, a man stops you and refers you to the lavs in the pub over the road. I doubt it would cut much ice if you then walked into that pub demanding to use the toilet, and saying: "I'll have you know I was sent here by a man from the Ritz!"

There's a latent tension behind any attempt to use toilets that are not strictly speaking public, a tension made manifest by the politician and wit F E Smith, who liked to use the gents' in The Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall as he walked to the Houses of Parliament. One day, after many years, a doorman reputedly checked him and suggested that his behaviour was a bit "off".

"Oh, I see," said Smith. "So it's a club as well."