There’s something decidedly not nice about the male toilets in Marks & Spencer on London’s Oxford Street. It isn’t the fact that they’re grotty, it’s more to do with the clientele, who tend to be men of advancing years who, it seems, are suffering from tropical stomach ailments or amoebic dysentery. You should hear the noise. “Rrrrrrrr.” “Ahhhhh.” “Uggggghhh.” “No!” “Pleeeaaase!” And it’s every time! You feel like you’re in British Borneo during the Indonesia-Malaysia conflict of 1962-66. The smell’s not fantastic either. I think the grandads who use M&S’ facilities actually make a special journey, as part of their daily routine, so they don’t have to scrub the pan clean in their own homes. I’ll bet their wives are dead. John Lewis up the road is very similar in this respect. I don’t have a solution to this problem, I’m merely flagging it up.
Me and my brother used to play “paras” when we were kids. This involved dressing in camouflaged or muted shades, finding a rifle-shaped stick, venturing to the Women’s Institute hut near our school, hiding in long grass and mowing down church-going women in cold blood as they departed for home, carrying their knitting. The last time we played paras, I distinctly recall that I was wearing brown cords. Waiting for the WI door to open, I decided to get a better aiming position and shifted sidewards. In doing so, I was soon enveloped by a most terrible stench.
Like the coward of the county, I deserted my post, leaping into enemy view so I could investigate what the caustic pong was. There, in the grooves of my brown cords, another similarly toned material had attached itself, effectively smoothing out the fabric. It was a dirty booby trap. A nauseous time bomb. Corporal Gale – our kid – leapt out of the grass wondering if I’d taken leave of my senses, telling me he was now in a position to seize power of the entire unit. “Come here,” I said, “I want to give you a big hug.” Before he could bayonet me, I grabbed hold of him and pretty soon the pair of us were covered in dog muck. He found this unusually funny, but my view at the time must have been a problem shared was a problem halved, and we ran back home to get changed.
In the bathroom, we stepped out of our foul-smelling fatigues and left the battle-ravaged remains at the foot of the sink. We swiftly found alternative strides and stampeded downstairs, without washing our hands, to pour some icing sugar onto two plates, which we’d then lick in front of the television. Three licks in and we caught the sound of Mam retching upstairs. “Bwurr-bwurr-bwurr.” Then she called out – almost at screaming point – “GET UP HERE, YOU DIRTY PIGS!!!” We pretty much court martialled ourselves on that occasion. Alas, this tawdry tale is far from unique.
I’m often asked if I’ve ever sat in tramp’s urine, and the answer to that is an emphatic “yes”. It was Wednesday, 13 August 2003, at 12.55pm, and I was hungry. Many of my acquaintances are familiar with the basic outline of this grim episode, but there has been so much wagging of tongues, idle hearsay and unnecessary fabrication, that I feel I ought to set the record straight.
Summer 2003 was very, very hot. Even worse than this year. The previous Sunday – 9 August 2003 – was a fire-blast afternoon, when the temperature in South London weighed in at a hefty 37 degrees. It’s ridiculous for this country. I mentioned at the time that if it was equally hot the following day, I was going to kill myself. Thankfully, the screaming apex of indescribable heat was reached that Sunday, and my life spared. By “tramp’s-p*** Wednesday”, it was a more manageable 27 degrees.
In midweek, I used to meet up with former colleagues of the defunct VOX magazine at the Fifties-era New Piccadilly Café on Denman Street. Formica tables. Staff steeped in European football knowledge. Reliable fare. All this kept us returning each week until it closed in 2007. For the record, I always ordered cheese omelette and chips – fabulous stodge. The owner, Lorenzo, hadn’t taken had a day off since 1957, but regrettably informed us that he could no longer afford the spiralling rent. We were devastated. I brought my London-disliking younger brother – the paras’ veteran – to the Piccadilly one Saturday afternoon and after he’d eaten his fill, having been treated like royalty by top waiter Mario, he admitted, “It’s alright this place.” The café has since been erased to make room for air-conditioned offices or a little hotel. I forget which.
So I was heading down to the “Picc” on Wednesday dinnertime, but I was carrying an injury from Monday night’s eleven-a-side football match. I played in goal a lot at this point due to faltering stamina. I was on the p*** a lot. During the match, I’d made a typically scrambling save but managed to clank my head on the goalpost, whereupon I entered a two-day psychedelic trip. I couldn’t form thoughts, my vision was a sparkly kaleidoscope and I spent hours and hours asleep on the floor like a tired dog. Concussion. I quite enjoyed the peace, actually.
As I was still a bit of a dreamy delight from the head injury, I decided to forego a 25-minute stroll to the café and instead caught the Bakerloo Line. All good so far! Got on the train and hey, look, a free seat, even though a lot of people are standing! I dutifully checked for pregnant women, then settled in like Mother Hen for a six-minute journey in relative comfort. These were the old Tube trains with sprung seats. People would regularly nod off on these upholstered relics because you’d sink back and be rocked to gentle kip, ending up at Elephantiasis & Castle. Not that sleep was an option on this journey.
I was getting my book out of my bag, probably a tome on heritage football hooliganism, when I realised in an instant that my backside wasn’t just wet, it was sopped through to the skin. I could tell it wasn’t rainwater or spilt elderflower cordial – the aroma was too strong and sweet for that. It smelt like Special Brew, but worse. The damaged synapses in my football-injured brain quickly fixed themselves and I added up the sums. Wet bottom + Special Brew-plus pong = tramp’s p***. I now faced a dilemma. Did I admit my predicament to the carriage and have them fall about in hysterics like the birds on Roobarb, or keep quiet and sit it out. I decided it would be best to register a complaint – someone must have known that the seat was soaked. It was as if an alcoholic blue whale had blasted out lager through its blowhole.
I leapt to my feet and looked at the faces of my fellow passengers. A man opposite seemed genuinely entertained by what was unfolding, and for a time, obviously fighting the urge to squeal with joy, he looked like he was urinating on his own seat. To him, life was an ongoing series of s***s’n’giggles. Now he could add p*** to the mix. I said, “You knew that seat was wet, but you let me sit in it?” He didn’t respond. “I bet you’d have let a child sit in that, or a 90-year-old nana, because that’s the level your humour works on.” He replied, “Norvern mankey.” Actually, he didn’t, but I wish he had. I’d reached a personal low. I egressed at Piccadilly Circus.
There was no question of omelette and chips by this point. I had to find clean, dry clothing, because the aroma was so intense. In Gap, I grabbed a three-pack of undercrackers as efficiently as the queue allowed, and then pace-strolled up Regent Street in search of emergency jeans. Browsing was off the agenda. I developed a guerrilla-shopping technique – straight in, check price, straight out, and no conversation can be entered into. Even in 2003, denim had drifted into the three-figure price bracket. My rule then, as it is now, is pay no more than £70 for leg coverings, but in London, even slacks made out of carrier bags set you back £120.
By the time I’d reached Oxford Circus, I was walking like a baby in a wet nappy. Then, out of nowhere, a Levi’s sale shop presented itself. I said: “Thank Christ.” Once past the shop’s threshold, I wasted no time, snapping up a pair of 501s for £65 – a Pyrrhic victory because 501s are an awful fit for my footballer’s thighs. They naturally corkscrew below the knee so the seams ends up central on my shins. The shop assistant removed the tags while I was standing at the till. I placed the sodden items in a carrier bag and stuffed them in the first bin I could find. Of course, my lads-mag work colleagues thought this was a hoot, and word quickly spread via email to the female/gay staff on the interiors magazine next door, and from there to the cycling titles, the accounts department, the CEO, and inevitably to our rival magazine companies. All in all, a really productive day.
Following my recent experiences at Marks & Spencer, I came up with the idea of running a sister site to Tripadvisor, whereby members of the public can give reviews of the toilets they’ve visited. Trapadvisor! It could make millions. I’m afraid M&S scores a lowly “1”, although I think London’s high-street shops should embark on a fact-finding mission to the Ceredigion coast in Wales if they want to learn the art of toilet management. You don’t just want to spend a penny in these immaculately maintained s***houses, you want to invest in them. The more I see of Wales, the more I think it’s a fantastic place. They’ve obviously realised that civic pride starts, literally, at the bottom and works it way upwards. We could learn a lot from Welsh toilets. If Wales can keep its restaurants serving food after 9pm and open its shops on Sunday, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with.