Saturday, February 06, 2010

John Marsden, and a theory of civilisation and schools more useful than Huntington's ...

(Above: Morimoto's Toto toilets, voted best toilet of 2006, see here. How does your school toilet compare?)

Perhaps I've been a little too hard on the Herald of late.

After all, any tree killer that can find space for Mike Carlton's top notch smack down of Lord Monckton in Debunking the myths behind the pontificating potty peer has a lot going for it.

It's true that he plays the eyeballs card - "the viscount and his performing eyeballs caper around the globe like some gibbering reject from a Monty Python sketch" - where it might have been classier to point out that Marty Feldman was a genuine comedian, and would have been one with or without Graves' disease. But the rest is a neat summary of the Monckton follies still being visited upon the antipodes, to the squawking delight of the loon commentariat.

But the real pleasure, one that will get me through a weekend in loon pond, is John Marsden's splendid insights into the education system, encapsulated in For good schools, forget the net, try the toilets.

Marsden's thesis, for which he should immediately be awarded a Ph.D, is a simple one:

The other way of evaluating the real worth of a school is to gain access to its two least accessible rooms: the kids' toilets and the staff room. God forbid you should even hint that you want to see inside the kids' toilets, unless you want the SWAT squad to be called, and then find your face, or, more accurately, a photographic image of your face, on the front page of the tabloids the very next day. But try to arrange for the building to be cordoned off while you sneak a look inside. What you want to see is facilities that are sparkling clean, no graffiti, good quality toilet paper that will be soft on your little one's bum, and fragrant soap. What you don't want to see is a vile and smelly place that induces instant constipation in all who venture near.

You can tell the man, for all his later career as a writer, has seen plenty of schools and come to a deep understanding of what makes the world tick (for his bio and his books, why not head off to his website here. No need to check his home toilet, methinks).

The quality of the lavatory facilities is the single best indicator of the respect in which children are held in a school; far better than any number of glossy brochures stuffed with photos carefully staged to show what the school believes will be most attractive to the customers they want to enrol.

Yep, in the course of a gig which took me into dozens of schools in South Australia, the whiff from the toilets was the surest indicator of the stench in a lazy staff room, and the torpid smell of ennui in the classroom, and the nose-smacking pong of an embalmed curriculum.

I'd just like to add one vital corollary to Marsden's thesis. If you get the chance, check out the boys' toilets or toilet block. In the usual way of things, someone is likely to have insisted to groundskeeper Willie that he do something to make the girls' toilets nice and take account of their special needs.

If a school fails this basic test of Elizabethan refinement - forces the girls to walk on the outside bit of the pavement so that the excrement can rain down on them from above, so to speak - then it is truly doomed. But most make a little effort for fragile girls, whereas they often abandon the boys to toilets best suited to the Garadene swine.

Now it's sometimes difficult for women to get inside the boys' block, unless you're on a special mission, but worst case, interested parents should make sure a trustworthy male does the inspection, and comes back with Sherlockian levels of details about the block (including Marsden's sure fire indicators, but also noting signs of cigarettes, drugs, and other bits and pieces that might suggest anarchy rules).

The risk in the current climate is that you or your Sherlock will immediately be locked up as paedophiles, but if you truly care about your child's future, what's a few years inside? (And yes a digital camera is a cheat, as it lacks the full sensory surround experience you get in a James Cameron film).

Marsden is also on safe grounds regarding staff rooms, though they're generally guarded against parents and students like Fort Knox:

If you are able to talk your way into the staff room, make sure your nostrils are quivering and your senses on full alert. A drab staff room populated by dispirited teachers is a red alert.

The worst school in which I ever taught had a vile repressive headmistress, and her dismal swamp-like reign gave the staff room the air of a sullen prison run by Sauron in his spare time away from Lord of the Rings.

So enamoured am I by Marsden's thesis - I commend his column to you for all the nuances I won't be borrowing - that it reminds me of another one I tried to develop in relation to toilets in restaurants.

A good-looking toilet is no guarantee of the quality of the food in the kitchen - after all, a bad restaurant with plenty of cash can still splash out on marble fittings - but the state of toilet's cleanliness can be handily taken as a sign of how seriously cleanliness in the kitchen is likely to be taken.

Indeed, you can have a hovel for a toilet, but still keep it clean and tidy, and when I see such a rare beast, I immediately relax about "ptomaine" poisoning and stomach bugs.

If you want an extreme example of the benefits of this kind of paranoia, try doing a tour of the back blocks of remote China, squatting as you go - pickled peanuts will ensure you make a visit or three - and you'll quickly get an idea about how often the chef might wash his hands.

I'm currently working on a more elaborate theory into a grand understanding of civilisations, and their rise and fall, in which toilets are the keystone.

In the United States, toilets are taken seriously, but every second gherkin has their own design, and the whole thing is wretchedly confusing because you have to talk of rest rooms, when in fact the last thing you need is a rest or a shoe shine or someone hanging around for a tip while failing to understand that at the least a clean toilet is what brings the tip.

Even so, like the Romans, Americans understand it's a vital issue, and just as the surest sign of Roman decay came via its failing sewerage and hot bath and water distribution systems, so in the outposts of America there are now unnerving signs everything is falling apart.

You can extend this to a study of toilets around the world - I'v never underestimated the sensuous pleasures of a bidet, and I've yet to find civilisation of a rarefied kind where there are no clean, convenient public toilets. Indeed it can be argued that flushing with warm water is a sign of European decadence - oh the sensuous pleasure of decadence - while there might well be a clash of civilisations revolving around the use you can put your left hand to in a country like Malaysia.

Argue how you will, if there's not a decent, regularly cleaned toilet, the entire system is under threat. Now take a trip on City Rail in Sydney and tell me the world isn't going to end, and possibly quite soon.

Of course it's possible to fall into a kind of anal retentive fearfulness about toilets and their implications. There's no need for obsessive hand washing of a compulsive kind, while muttering about bugs.

But a concern for tender bums should be to the fore in life, and I thank Marsden heartily for making the point.

And now a short reading from Francois Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, my habit when ever the matter of toilets rears its porcelain head. In the chapter linked to above, Gargantua gives his father much sage advice about his many experiments with the best materials for bum wiping.

It's way too long to quote, but follow the link and you'll get the good stuff, along with his conclusion as to the best way to go:

Afterwards I wiped my tail with a hen, with a cock, with a pullet, with a calf’s skin, with a hare, with a pigeon, with a cormorant, with an attorney’s bag, with a montero, with a coif, with a falconer’s lure. But, to conclude, I say and maintain, that of all torcheculs, arsewisps, bumfodders, tail-napkins, bunghole cleansers, and wipe-breeches, there is none in the world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs. And believe me therein upon mine honour, for you will thereby feel in your nockhole a most wonderful pleasure, both in regard of the softness of the said down and of the temporate heat of the goose, which is easily communicated to the bum-gut and the rest the inwards, in so far as to come even to the regions of the heart and brains. And think not that the felicity of the heroes and demigods in the Elysian fields consisteth either in their asphodel, ambrosia, or nectar, as our old women here used to say; but in this, according to my judgment, that they wipe their tails with the neck of a goose, holding her head betwixt their legs, and such is the opinion of Master John of Scotland, alias Scotus.

Indeed. Needless to say there are many reasons why an attorney's bag would fail the rigorous testing.

But what joy that there is, after all, a grand use for geese, and not just for the ones running around honking about the education revolution.

Now at least I know why I always liked Marsden's writing, and so did the kids - he has a sense of humor and insight aplenty to go with it. And if you think he's joking, I'm sorry, it has to be said, likely enough you're a goose.

(Below: if we'd been brave about the thesis, we would have shown some bad toilet blocks, but this is not the kind of site that wants to create mental blockages, so we settled for this sign, borrowed from Tim Bowden, here).


  1. The Japanese Toilet is really a toilet bidet combination and although nice is also very expensive. You can keep your current toilet and get the same benefits by adding a hand bidet sprayer for very little cost. A hand held bathroom bidet sprayer is so much better than a stand alone bidet and this is why: 1. It's less expensive (potentially allot less) 2.You can install it yourself = no plumber expense 3. It works better by providing more control of where the water spray goes and a greater volume of water flow. 4. It requires no electricity and there are few things that can go wrong with it. Available at

  2. Handy information. Let's hope purchasing officers in education departments around the land are reading ...


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