Headmaster’s Thoughts — January 2015

You might have anticipated that my first published “Thoughts” of the New Year would be serious and educational. You would have been wrong.

You probably know that I come from England, where we have a long history of having a fascination with scatology. Put bluntly, that means that we are quite interested in toilets.

My wife and I rate movies, restaurants, gardens, and, yes, even toilets. We may be at a restaurant, or the airport, or virtually anywhere where there are public toilets, and we will come out saying, “Their toilets were amazing/interesting/awful/unusual.”

Of course, travel expands one’s horizons. Toilets in Japan earn a ten out of ten on the “Stewart Golden Flush Scale,” while toilets in China are sometimes not even a one. I cannot tell you of our worst experiences there because words fail to capture what we have seen.

To prove the people’s fascination with this subject in England, I mention that the “Good Loo Guide” was the first publication I know of that rated bathrooms in a city (London). The Savoy Hotel did quite well. I think there is now a similar book rating toilets in virtually every major city, but it is no accident that the English got there first.

The bathrooms on English trains are uniquely interesting. The toilet paper seems to be made of a greased paper similar to that used to wrap smoked salmon at Zabar’s. Stamped on every sheet are the words “Property of H.M. Government.” Yes, “H.M” stands for “Her Majesty’s” and yes, we should all wonder what the Queen would do with the roll?

Above the toilet, and we are still talking about trains here, is a sign that says, “Gentlemen, lift the seat.” I take this as a sign of the class of people using the toilet. Gentlemen should lift the seat but the rest of us peasants likely will not. The other interpretation (using the concept that “lift” in English slang means “steal) is that the nobility are being encouraged to pilfer the seat. You can see how a small sign can produce interesting philosophical discussions.

In America, one of my favorite songs was written by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and sung to the tune of Dvorjak’s “Humoresque.” Douglas wrote it on a train (I cannot seem to get away from this train motif) while on the way from New York to Yale, where he was at law school. I will only give you the first stanza because I have heard literally hundreds of different subsequent stanzas from Australia, Canada, and many other parts of the former British Empire:

“Passengers will please refrain
From flushing toilets while the train
Is in the station. Darling, I love you.
We encourage constipation
While the train is in the station.
Moonlight always makes me think of you!”

This is best sung with a ukulele accompaniment (but then again, isn’t everything?). While on the subject of music, I should also refer to Mozart’s—yes, Wolfgang Amadeus—interest in scatological humor. We have songs he wrote which I will not repeat because, though fascinated by toilets, I have far less interest in obscene words.

One of my sisters actually has at her home in England a genuine, original toilet by Thomas Crapper, the firm that first made the modern toilet. I distinctly remember Jayme being more impressed by the toilet than anything else in my sister’s beautiful home. If Jayme could, she would have bought it then and there.

We were once on a very small cruise ship where the lecturer, a professor at the University of Manchester, prepared us for our visit to Ephesus by lecturing on the toilet habits of elite Romans. Until then, I never knew that a slave pre-warmed the chilly marble seats. There were other interesting details, and the majority of passengers were engrossed, perhaps because most of them were English.

This tour of the world brings me back to Japanese toilets, which not only warm the seats but do many other interesting things too. If you find yourself in Japan, I hope you have the opportunity of seeing modern technology in scatological action.

I want a sign over our toilet at home. It would read: “Ladies, return the seat to the raised position when you are finished.” No chance! Ah, a man can but dream.

It really is a fascinating subject, particularly if you are English! And yes, as I hope you have noticed by now, this is not a “serious” piece on education.

Ronald P. Stewart
Headmaster
York Prep