UK

We take toilets for granted, today. We lock the door, do what we have to do, flush the toilet, wash our hands, then forget about it. Underground sewers take care of the rest.

Our sanitation is built on not having to think about it — unless it goes wrong, of course.

And yet toilets and bathrooms aren’t only utilitarian spaces. No other room is so intimately connected with our lives.Toilets can reveal a great deal about us.What does your toilet say about you?

Annette Robinson
Hereford, UK
“It’s not a bathroom, per se. It’s a space to colour and cleanse the mind.”

Annette Robinson’s bathroom is not big, around 2.5m x 2.5m, and yet it serves an important function. On the one hand it’s just a bathroom done up in a bohemian way - scarves, necklaces, crystals, candles - the kind of look you might find at Glastonbury Festival. But it is also a therapeutic space for Annette.

When Annette was 50, she and her husband moved out of suburban Surrey to rural Herefordshire. Down a winding lane, their new home had once been an ornamental tree nursery and there were acres of overgrown fields with trees and polytunnels that were all theirs.

After the move, Annette and her husband were absorbed in their new life: finding a job, taking on pigs, coping with a mental illness that had plagued Annette since her late 30s. She was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, which brings severe high and low moods. Or as she puts it, “black days and bright days.” Her most recent breakdown was in 2015.

What changed everything for her was doing up the bathroom. It had an 80s-style, champagne-coloured bathroom suite and the toilet leaked. A friend who was upgrading his bathroom, asked if she’d like his toilet and basin. She said, yes, and gave him two apple trees. She and Jim carried them back home and stored them in one of the polytunnels, but her pigs escaped, ran amok and the basin pedestal ended up damaged.

“That is exactly what happened to me,” she says. “I had a nervous breakdown and I ended up damaged.” The cracked pedestal unlocked something in her. “Instead of trying to ‘fix’ myself with drugs, I decided I would embrace the person I am.” “People wanted to throw medicine at me,” she continues, “and I didn’t want to take the medicine, mainly because it’s really toxic.” Instead she’s applied an unorthodox approach: healing herself by doing up her bathroom.

By keeping the damaged pedestal and making a feature of it - it now has tendrils of ivy growing around it - Annette found a new purpose. “People are not always broken in the way they think they are,” she says. She took other bits of junk that would have been binned and made them precious. The old metal roof of the potting shed is now the bathroom ceiling. The front panel of the bath is cut from a metal table that was languishing in the garden. The light switch is a red cord tassel from a charity shop. “A room that was devoid of spirit is now a place I love to visit,” she says. “It’s not a bathroom, per se. It’s a space to colour and cleanse the mind.”


Barry Hardy
Inverness, UK
“Not having a decent toilet isn’t something that happened years ago…it happened in my lifetime.”

Barry Hardy can remember every toilet in every home he’s lived in stretching back into his childhood. When he was a baby, his parents could only afford rooms in a shared house and the toilet was a shed at the end of the garden. “I can remember my father having to shave at the kitchen sink,” he says. Later, in 1954 when Barry was two, his parents had their first bathroom with a toilet, bath and sink.

The room was his mother’s joy, always kept clean. “She spent a lot of time in there luxuriating in the bath.” He can see now what a sanctuary it must have been. “Having her own bathroom would have meant a lot to her.”

After leaving school, Barry had various jobs in the oil industry, and in construction, before becoming a sewage expert for Scottish Water, where he worked for 25 years.Toilets were obviously an important part of his career: unblocking them, laying pipes for them, and later giving talks about the importance of them while working with WaterAid. “The longer I spent in the sewage industry the more sympathy I had for people who simply didn’t have what we were trying to repair and keep running.”

His own bathroom reflects practical design and comfort: wooden panelling, extensive storage, potpourri, and a toilet bowl that floats off the floor. “It’s suspended by brackets on the wall so you can mop underneath it,” he explains.

But the toilet that made the biggest impression is one he visited 50 years ago. At the time he was 16 and still living with his parents in Wales. His brother, three years older, had left home and was living in Burnley, Lancashire, where he worked in a coal mine.

Barry went to stay with him for two weeks. “It was a two-up, two-down, no bathroom.” The toilet was in the yard outside. He describes the experience of using it as both intriguing (the “tipper system” was especially compelling) and terrifying. “There was the boogie man out there in the dark, scaring you to death.” The spiders were also unnerving.

Even if he was desperate Barry would hold on until the morning, which could get quite uncomfortable. “It’s not only the fact of the toilet being outside, it’s the consequences of that fact: how it makes you feel, and how disadvantaged you are,” he says.To be born in Britain is one of the safest bets sanitation wise. “Not having a decent toilet isn’t something that happened years ago,” he points out. “It happened in my lifetime. This was 1970! We had the Beatles! We had Abba!”


Yvonne Bailey-Smith
London, UK
“I invariably come home from my travels with a picture of a toilet.”

Yvonne Bailey-Smith has an unusual attitude to toilets. It’s not only that she has three, including one crammed into a converted cupboard in her bedroom. Or that she maintains them to the highest level. “I cannot stand a dirty loo,” she says. Or even that her knowledge is encyclopaedic, though it is. It’s that when you visit her home and see the number of travel books on her shelf you realise she has a toilet story from just about every country she has visited: super high-tech in Chicago airport; mirror-lined in Madeira; pedal- flush in Lisbon; unplumbed in Ghana.“I invariably come home from my travels with a picture of a toilet,” she says.

Plenty of people care about sanitation but with Yvonne, her passion for toilets somehow goes to the heart of who she is.

She was born in Jamaica where her life centred on her grandparents. “I never lived with my mother,” she says. “She gave birth and then left to find work.” Her grandparents brought up four of their daughter’s children. Yvonne was the oldest.

They lived in a village in St Elizabeth, a district on the south west of the island, where her grandmother, directly descended from slaves, had inherited some land. “I think slave owners gave it to one of her relatives,” says Yvonne.

The latrine, built by her grandfather, was some distance from the main house. Half hidden by mango and avocado pear trees, inside was a deep pit in the ground covered by wooden floorboards with a wooden seat for comfort. Called “convenience” by her grandfather, it was old and ramshackle. “The fear was that the floorboards would give way and you’d fall down this very deep hole.” Yvonne was never sure what she’d find in this little room. “An enormous great toad or the odd scorpion.”

“My grandfather was aware the whole thing would fall to pieces one day, so he built another one, a little nearer the house. It had a concrete floor and was built very well.” But the most memorable aspect was its innovative design. It had two toilets side by side: one for her grandfather; one for her grandmother. “Why does he want to go to the toilet with my grandmother?” Yvonne thought at the time. “Why does he have to announce to her what he’s about to do?” “Ida, me going forwards!” “Ida, me going backwards!” Now it’s obvious. “They were very close. He adored her. She was gorgeous. He was gorgeous.”

Aged 15,Yvonne arrived in London to join her mother, stepfather and five siblings (three from Jamaica; two born in the UK). Uprooted from all she had known she had to deal with the upheavals and adjustments of moving to a new country and a new family.

The next chapter began. She trained as a social worker, then a psychotherapist, got married and divorced. Now she travels, she writes, her children have their own lives: novelist Zadie Smith; actor and musician Ben Bailey Smith, and rapper and writer Luc Skyz.

The toilets of Yvonne’s childhood have left a legacy. There are obvious things like a flush toilet being so alien at first (“Wow! People don’t have to go and fetch water!”); how having more than one toilet can represent a British form of achievement. And how, in her thirties, she filled her bathroom in London with oversized, tropical looking plants. “I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was homesick for Jamaica.The toilet was in the jungle.You were surrounded by trees! It was absolutely wonderful!”

Another interesting consequence is that the dark never frightens her. “Caribbean children are not really afraid of the dark,” she says, “When I came to England for years and years, I walked around the house in the pitch dark and my family were like, what’s the matter with you?”

“Looking back, the thing I truly loved about our toilets was the total privacy,” she says. “It was just you, sitting alone, at a considerable distance from the house.The toilets of my childhood were very private spaces. And to this day, I will struggle to use one which is right next to another, or one which does not have a fully lockable door.”