Notes on...

The unlikely beauty of urinals

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

In 1966, just as he was becoming famous, Michael Caine met John Wayne. The Holly-wood veteran offered him some advice: ‘Never wear suede shoes.’ The explanation? ‘One day, you’ll be taking a pee, and the guy next to you will say “Michael Caine!” and he’ll turn and piss all over your shoes.’

Urinals are tricky places. Women seem to think they’re temples of laddishness, all footy banter and lewd jokes. A few men are like that, the sort who stand with their free palm planted high on the wall (God knows why). But most of us find the whole thing rather awkward. The broadcaster Mark Chapman once stood next to his hero Bryan Robson. ‘I couldn’t go… I wanted to shake his hand, but circumstances didn’t really allow for that… He nodded in my direction. I nodded back. After what seemed like an age he finished, washed his hands and left, leaving me feeling like that eight-year-old boy all over again, still in admiration, still in awe and still needing to go to the toilet.’

Alan Clark’s diaries reveal that he couldn’t ‘urinate if someone else comes into the gents — which, I seem to remember… could get you a discharge from the Army as being a moral danger to your brothers in arms’. Ah, we’re getting to the core of it here: a urinal has more than one purpose. And if you’re only using it for the intended one, you don’t want anyone mistakenly thinking you’re there for the other one, the purpose that landed George Michael with a prosecution and the Sun with its headline ‘Zip Me Up Before You Go Go’. Cottaging has a long tradition. In 1937 the author Thomas Burke published a guide to London’s most sociable urinals, including warnings on which were watched by the police.

Urinals can be beautiful things in themselves. Ernest Hemingway converted one taken from a bar into a water fountain for his cats. Gates garden centre at Cold Overton in Leicestershire has ones shaped as flowers. My favourites were behind the Edrich stand at Lord’s: acres of gorgeous white marble. Walking past recently I saw them reduced to rubble. The redevelopment of Lord’s will be wonderful, but it was still a sad moment.

The urinals at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport have flies painted on to them, encouraging men to aim at the insect and keep the floor dry. This is a Victorian trick, though back then it was often a bee. An intellectual pun, you see: the Latin for bee is apis. Recently I used a urinal fitted with two mini TV screens — you could take part in a survey by directing your stream at one or the other.

Sometimes there’s subterfuge. Sir Michael Havers couldn’t work out how his opponent in the Spycatcher court case knew his tactics in advance, until it turned out he’d been discussing them too loudly in the urinals at the Garrick Club. But mostly it’s embarrassment. The producers of Alan Bennett’s film A Private Function struggled to find a urinal for the scene in which Michael Palin’s character is intimidated by several businessmen. Finally, when Palin was eating in a very respectable café patronised by middle-aged women, Bennett burst in and loudly announced: ‘We’ve found a toilet, near Paddington station, and it’ll take ten!’

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