By Geoff Strong at The Age in Australia

Which genius thought to get rid of WCs while the population ages?

I decided one night a couple of weeks ago to fill my car at a service station in Ringwood East. While the car’s tank was near empty, mine was full and as part of the transaction I was intending to use the toilet. Given that I was also able to refill myself from any of the drinks they had on offer, expecting somewhere to empty out seemed a fair deal.

After paying, I discovered the toilet was locked. I asked the young attendant, who confirmed this was intentional. When I asked where I could go to pee, he just shrugged. I suggested I might go in the drinks aisle or out front near one of the bowsers, but he was unfazed.

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The exchange reminded me of an altercation in a French hotel years ago when my wife was refused the opportunity to use les toilettes des dames. When she threatened to seek relief in the hotel lobby and began disrobing, the refusal was reversed. I had no such luck in Ringwood East.

I initially put this down to Generation Y’s inability to understand the sensitivities of ageing organs, but then I realised it was part of a wider tendency. Public toilets – or private toilets open to the public – are becoming more scarce.

There was a golden age of public toilet building in Australia. In the years immediately following World War II, the urge to purge was well understood and brick public dunnies were everywhere. Their placement was often impressive. I have noticed that wherever the ancient Greeks or Romans spread their culture, they built marble temples on prominent hills, headlands and other beauty spots.

In postwar Australia, our priorities ensured such sites would usually be occupied by a structure that was often occupied. But we appear now to be doing away with them.

There was a stunning piece of toilet architecture that disappeared from Flagstaff Gardens a few years ago. It was long, sleek, 1950s modernist design with sandstone walls and a touch of Frank Lloyd Wright. It occupied the highest point of the gardens, so if you had an urgent need you knew where to sprint. Now, whenever there is an ”event” in the gardens, a couple of portable loos are trucked in to stop people relieving themselves amid the agapanthus.

The same demolition has happened to a round toilet block in the Fitzroy Gardens, which I suspect might have been the work of the same unrecognised architectural genius.

We have long been reminded of the challenges we face with an ageing population. Some of these challenges entail cystitis, prostatitis and irritable bowel syndrome. Before long, half the continent could be incontinent.

What are we doing in preparation? Either shutting down public loos or replacing them with those stupid single-throne bunkers with automatic doors taking up the space that could be occupied by a pee trough and several cubicles.

My wife refuses to use them, fearing she might be locked inside, forever forced to listen to an endless stream of piped music. It is an irrational fear because no matter where you use one of these things – from Brisbane to Ballarat and, presumably, Baltimore – they only play the one tune.

After a little fanfare, to cover the time needed to remove clothing, the public address system launches into an up-tempo version of the 1965 hit What the World Needs Now is Love (Sweet Love). Should love be the purpose of visiting this place, it would have to be quick, because an American-accented voice warns, ”you have 10 minutes”.

What the world needs now is more public toilets. In Italy they hardly exist, forcing those in need to visit a cafe. In parts of India it is still OK to excrete on the street. But why is this happening in Australia, once able to boast clean rest rooms to shame the world?

As usual, it is probably to do with costs, but have the bureaucrats who make these decisions based them on projected need?

I suggest they take the time for a time and motion study.

Meanwhile, what options are there for those being caught short? Most of those now faced with this prospect are part of the pesky demographic known as baby boomers. In the heyday of boomer youth, any protest inevitably entailed what was called a ”sit in”. These days, we need to get the message to authorities to uphold the right to normal bodily functions. Perhaps we need to organise what might be termed a ”shit in”. One way or the other, I feel it will grow into a mass movement.

Geoff Strong is an Age senior writer.

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