Going backstage – thoughts on searching for a small room
December 6, 2012 19 Comments
This is one of those essay ideas that springs to mind and meets an immediate voice of caution. No one else does it, so neither should you. No one writes essays about the expeditionary practices of navigating your way ‘backstage’ in a search for a cafe or pub’s toilets. But I’m afraid the temptation to venture into this barren zone was too great to bear. So, here it is. A reflective journey on half-remembered searches for the sanctuary spaces buried deep in someone else’s private territory. It is also about why these islands of public convenience exist and why it feels odd to venture in search of them. Rest assured that, in what follows I don’t dwell on the toilet. The piece is largely about the liminal space encountered in the search. The journey is the interesting bit, not the arrival.
‘I may be some time’
For me the best part of a trip out to a pub, cafe or restaurant is the opportunity to sneak off to the toilet. No, this is not a confession of cottaging or drug dependency, rather a celebration of the opportunity to pass beyond the public face of a commercial establishment that searching the bowels of a building for its loos presents.
Often the journey starts with a 360 degree survey of the scene, trying not to be too obvious or to intrude into the private jollity of other parties in the room. Then, hopefully, a sign or a pattern will emerge in the way that occasionally people walk off stage into areas that are not the entrance/exit. If lucky there will be someone else in your party who has already made the trek. Ask them in a whisper if they will point you onward. But before asking them, or the staff here, first perhaps a conscious pause for thought about which of the many words you carry around for ‘the bog’ is suitable for this establishment.
Then, with a route set, you are off and walking increasingly purposefully across the room, gliding between others’ tables, trying to make it all seem perfectly natural (which it is). But – still – on the way there and on the way back you can’t help but feel that everyone is watching. Everyone knows what you are up to.
After an eternity of room-gaze crossing you are there, at a turn, a doorway, some other change of scene that announces that you are at the threshold, at the brink of ‘backstage’. The transition is signalled by a narrowing of passage, a sudden chaotic density of space-use: watch out for the buckets, the stores, the equipment occupying this narrow indoor lane. And in contrast to the room you were just in – the commercial space – the here you are now in is empty of people. Sounds echo out from the kitchen, a clatter of pots, the hum of an extractor fan, tinny fragments of voices or music from a rusty radio drift towards you – but no-one ever comes out into the passage. And for that you are glad, because you don’t feel entirely sure that you have the right to be here. This anxiety spurs another rapid visual survey, a reflex anticipated by the more considerate establishments, who will have posted some ‘onward’ instructional signage. Although often this may have more of a feel of telling you which turns not to take: the ‘private – staff only’ commands on every door you are not meant to stray through.
The best loo-hunting journeys require a tour of long winding corridors, with bends and puzzling junctions, then stairs – an up or a down – some more winding walking and eventually (at the moment you are about to doubt either your own navigation or the sincerity of the signage that you have been putting your faith in) the destination is upon you.
Soon the realisation hits you, that you have strayed deep into the backstage area. Visits to Berlin from the West must have felt this way (sort of). Here you are, in a public enclave deep in foreign private territory. Perhaps you are no longer even in the same building. Did those stairs and winding passages take you out of the pub? Have you, Alice-like, been lured into some parallel universe, one like an earnest early 1970s sci-fi film where all the humans have disappeared and you will spend you remaining days solely in the company of the rusty radio, catering sized tins of baked beans and dull polished metal surfaces?
Within the loo cubicle there is some womb-like comfort born of universal functionality (all loo china-wear looks the same even if there is marked diversity in states of cleanliness). But there will also be varieties and ages of hand dryer, paper towel dispenser and ventilation ducts. How many decades have these things been this way? Time moves more slowly out the back. Surfaces are more approximate. This a world of ‘make do’, in contrast to the annual upgrade and daily wipe clean of the commercial space that you have now strayed from.
Looking at these devices you may try to date their designs. You may linger over the manufacturer plate riveted onto the dryer as it blows water from your hands. ‘World Dryer Corp’, and their HQ in a mid-west industrial US city that you’ve never heard of, where they seem to breed dryers at a world dominating rate. A whole city devoted to producing a clone dryer army. Maybe.
Then perhaps the window catches your eye, slightly ajar. Is that because of the thick layers of paint on the metal frame now prevent it from closing, or is this an attempt at ventilation? If sufficiently open, there may be a chance to peek though it and glimpse a yard area beyond. A private little, tumble down world that is not designed to be viewed by patrons, and yet if glimpsed tells you so much about the manner of this place.
For me the best images glimpsed from these window slits are of delivered piles of stores: bulk and boxed legion of ingredients. A catering supply delivery, a surfeit of stuff, more than a life-time’s horde of ketchup sachets. That abundance, stripped of any presentational flair, is naked commerce. What you are glimpsing is the reception point where everything is tipped into this building, this business, and will eventually appear heated, portioned and presented in the eating zone. Things are instigated here and from this point forward value is ‘added’.
But hey, you can’t stay here all day. So thoughts turn to the return, and its uncertainty. Why do these places often have less directional signage on the return journey? Is one stumbling trek really sufficient to have done away with the need for return-ward pointers? In the worst cases there will be doors, identical in colour. One will be the way back into the living, commercial realm, the others will lead who knows where (the kitchen probably). In moments like that you may wish for an Ariadne’s thread. Or maybe you could have sprinkled bread crumbs. But either would be very hard to explain if you did encounter some backstage staff.
The origins of these reluctant spaces
The experience of delving into an alien territory – of going backstage – doesn’t arise with purpose built venues. There are no winding corridors, no intriguing staircases, no over-painted window frames. In short, there is no journey. The toilet zones of multiplex cinemas (for example) are close to hand, designed into the building from the start. They are not an afterthought that requires an expedition.
No, it is older buildings and their provision of their sanitary conveniences in areas other than the core commercial zone that have these enticing effects of taking you ‘backstage’. In these places these toilets were once private, this area was never designed or intended for public gaze. And yet a requirement came along and had to be accommodated. Backstage had to be opened up because loos had to be provided for the patrons. Access was therefore reluctantly inserted into the static layout of the building, and the public permitted to pass into the backstage solely for the purpose of reaching them.
And the origin of those requirements? Well, there is a widely held view that cafes and bars must provide WCs for their patrons. Digging in, to try to find the root of this requirement, I find earnest parliamentary debate about public toilet provision, I find legislation and I find British Standards. The best picture I can glean is that the (splendidly titled) Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 empowers local councils to take action against owners of establishments at which food and drink is served if they fail to provide sanitary conveniences. But the 1976 Act does not compel this, local authorities do not have to crusade in favour of such provision, and therefore (according to the British Toilet Association [yes there really is one]) local enforcement practice varies wildly between different local authority areas. Some care strongly about enforcing this, others don’t. Public toilets in such places therefore exist either in vague rumour based anticipation of possible council requirements or as a result of actual intervention.
Whatever the specifics of the origins of this optional legislative control, it is (for me at least) instructive to think that the oddness felt when venturing backstage in search of the toilet is actually a liminal experience for all concerned. For the environmental health officer ‘it depends’ on local practices and policies, for the owner he’s left unsure, for the patron he feels uneasy as he steps backstage.
A trip into backstage areas in search of the loo is thus an opportunity to savour the materialities of these public/private, voluntary/mandatory, welcoming/reluctant, old/new ambiguities in regulators’, owners’ and users’ engagements with place.