Toilet Signs

I know that nostalgia is not what it used to be but I am sure that there was a time when signs were easier to understand than they are today.

Take for example those found on toilet doors in any public building: gone are the days when we were presented with the choice between 'Ladies' and 'Gents'. It seems that 'Guys' and 'Gals' have a more modern feel. I even came across one set of doors that said 'Laddies' and 'Luvvies'.

Now please understand that I am not writing as one of those who wish the English language would remain the same forever. I just have a concern that one day I will be in such a hurry to 'pay a visit' that I will go in the wrong toilet.

As with most anxieties this concern is probably linked to an event in my youth that shaped my future thinking. I recall being in a youth choir during my school years and having to perform at Manchester's Free Trade Hall.

As 'artistes' we were ushered into the changing rooms somewhere below stage and told to wait until we were called. Just before we were due to appear in front of the expectant audience I must have had a touch of stage fright and urgently needed to find a toilet. I travelled around corridor after corridor until I eventually found a door with the word 'Gents' in big bold letters.

In I went and was happy to find that the toilets were empty; for a few moments at least. It wasn't long, however, before I heard voices which I soon realised were female. Sat in that lonely cubicle I had only two choices; I could make my excuses and leave red faced or I could wait it out until the crowd disappeared. Being the brave soul that I am I waited until the sound of ladies voices had faded. It appears that whilst I was 'engaged', so to speak, the caretaker had replaced the 'Gents' sign with a 'Ladies' one without checking if anyone was inside.

This experience has lead to the concern I have for the clarity of such signage. Now, it would seem that my worry is justified for we have started to move away from those containing words to pictorial representations. Most of them have simple block drawings of either a man or a woman which, in a bad light and on a full bladder, can seem a little unclear. Some establishments, in an attempt at being arty or clever, have engravings that seem designed to make you take a pause before entering whilst you take a closer look, thus slowing things down. This I don't need; at my time of life the whole process takes longer than I would like anyway.

Such things are not a problem on the continent where toilet boundaries are more ambiguous. I recall on one holiday to France stopping in a village only to find a communal loo where the females had to walk past the men's urinals to get to a cubicle. Added to this there was a distinct lack of seating facilities, offering no more than a hole in the ground with a chain hanging from the ceiling with which to hold oneself in a suitable position. Needless to say the daughters all refused to pay a visit on this occasion and thus waited cross legged until we happened upon a more up-to-date facility.

In this country, however, a 'privy' should be, by definition, relatively private. So come on Britain; I can cope with hand dryers that pump out cold air (that is why men wear jeans), I can deal with broken locks on cubicle doors (That is why we learn to whistle from an early age), I can even make do with over energetic flush systems on the urinals (that is why we hone our reactions on the gaming machines). I just need to be able to easily decipher what the sign means on the toilet door. If communication is to work it should do 'exactly what it says on the tin' (to borrow a phrase). Or should that be 'exactly what it says on the can'.


Much to my daughters dismay I have never been one for taking too many risks with my appearance; in fact I take comfort in the simple idea that weekends are about t-shirts, in direct contrast to my weekdays, which contain shirts and ties.

Even when I was younger I watched as other lads got curly perms (think Kevin Keegan) and ear rings (think the lads on the fairground who could make standing on a moving ride look easy).

I toyed with the idea of going blond in an attempt at looking like Sting until a rather too honest friend pointed out that they could change my hair but not my face.

So I was left to take pride in my handle-bar moustache (think The Village People). When I grew it in the seventies it was at the end of a fad for facial hair. I had quite light locks and so it took me months to produce anything that could be seen by the naked eye. Looking back at old photos now I can see that it just appears to be two faint clumps of fluff on either side of my chin with very little on my upper lip.

So it is that, as I approach half a century (not out), I have decided to get a tattoo. Not a big brash one, just a small discrete symbol of my wish to be different, by being the same as other people. I recall meeting one larger than life girl who had a tattoo of David Beckham complete with his own miniature Tattoos; this is surely commitment to the cause when even your tattoos have tattoos.

My father-in-law (who, at eighty seven, has fought in seven world wars for the likes of youngsters like me) rolled his eyes and chuckled as I announced the news of my intent to be permanently marked.

He has a rather impressive military shield on his left forearm so I asked him how he came about having such artistry on his body. He told me that during the Second World War, when he was stationed in India, he and a mate had too much time and money available for such young lads away from home.

They had been for a night out and had more than their fair share of rocket fuel and so were feeling very brave. They arrived at the Tattooist just as he was getting ready to close but managed to talk them into staying for just two more jobs.

He agreed and they both selected a large and intricate emblem to go on their chests. The proprietor, however, was unable to stay in order to do two difficult pieces. He suggested that one of the lads should have a chest tattoo and the other should have one on his arm.

They were both a little disappointed but agreed to toss a coin to see who should have the glory of the chosen design. My father in law lost and, in his lubricated state, unhappily had to make do with the lesser offering.

The next morning things were a little different, as his army pal woke in pain to face a day's duty with a stinging reminder of their drunken episode.

Hearing granddad’s tale has made me take time to reconsider the idea of body art. So what I am supposed to do to mark my journey through middle age.

My third daughter settled the matter by deciding that she wanted to get her own emblem carefully inked on her wrist and has accused me of wanting to copy her; then rest of the girls joined in to say that my idea of body art at my age was all wrong.

So I am left with choosing either blonde streaks or a curly perm; or perhaps, seeing I have a receding hairline, growing my hair long and wearing it in a ponytail, pulled back so that it looks like it has been caught in a lift door and is stretching my forehead back (think Francis Rossi from Status Quo).

Passport Vanity

Recently we had to send away our old and tattered driving licences for address changes requiring us to provide photographs.

Having found a photo booth, and enough change to feed it, we set about trying to work out how to get the best from this most cruel piece of modern machinery. I am not sure what it is about them but they seem to bring out panic in nearly everyone. You respond as if you are about to capture a piece of your very soul and not just a convenient picture.

Steeling ourselves we spun the seat to the required height and read the instructions. My wife had volunteered to go first and you would think that would be the end of the story. Impatient to get on with other more important things I attempted to put sterling into the slot but my wife was not ready to pose.

She took out of her bag several combing devices, a selection of make-up gunk and a small mirror. ‘I will have to look at this photo for the next few years’ she said as if offering a defence.

Having satisfied her need to prune she positioned herself and the picture was taken. Now it was my turn and I readied myself to get it over with as quick as I could. ‘Are you not going to comb your hair’ said my bride with a mixture of care and disappointment. ‘Do you think I need to’ I replied. She handed me a comb without a word as if an answer to my question was not necessary. Hair suitably rearranged I sat waiting for the flash to go off trying to neither smile not grimace; such that I ended up looking like I was slightly constipated.

We waited for our photos with a mixture of fear and fun knowing that they would look both awful to us and amusing to anyone else who viewed them.

‘I am going to get mine done again’ said my wife threatening to spend another four pound. I convinced her that there was no point in redoing the sitting as it was unlikely that anyone would see the finished result due to the fact that she never drives fast enough for the police to be interested in stopping her for a chat.

I understand her concern because I know as well as the rest of the population that the machines are designed to show every blemish and wrinkle so that no feature will escape the glare of the flash lighting.

I also think that we have been spoilt by the computer technology available to us meaning that we can touch up our snaps in a way that was once only available to top fashion photographers. I have enjoyed the fact that I can remove the odd blemish and wrinkle without resorting to plastic surgery.

I am not sure about the morality, however, of airbrushing your children’s photographs to make them look prettier. I once had a colleague who edited one such picture so that his son’s ears didn’t look to be so sticky out. I can’t imagine it would give you much confidence in later life to know that your dad thought you were so ugly that he had to resort to such measures.

Anyway no such luxuries with a photo booth so were left to make the best of a bad lot.

When we arrived home I made the comment that we could use one of the photographs to renew our passports, thereby saving money. My wife would have none of it insisting that she was unwilling to travel around the world having to show people this sub standard image.

‘I suppose it is only four pounds’ I thought as she went off to make a phone call. She returned a few moments later looking happier and declaring that it was all sorted for the passport photograph as she had booked a hair appointment for the following week and would feel more confident about the resultant picture after that.

I looked at my photograph and then looked in the mirror noticing that the half smile-half grimace facial expression was now a permanent feature.


I am really good at parallel parking but have to admit that I am only good when I have the right conditions. Bizarrely, I can manage it really well between two narrowly positioned cars yet when I have to park next to the curb, and I have acres of room, I fail miserably. The same is true when towing a trailer; given the reference points of a narrow gate opening and I am a show off at reversing; in an empty field I am faced with too much choice and I look like a buffoon. Of course at my age I have years of experience to call on (reversing that is – not looking like a buffoon).

When our daughters were younger we were kindly given a caravan so that we could upgrade from the usual canvas holidays to ones with a few more luxuries; and when I say luxuries I mean curtains that don’t meet in the middle and lights that hint at being good enough to illuminate your world.

All packed up we set off for Cornwall with ideas of hot weather and rolling seas in our minds. My only concession to my inexperience at towing was a pledge to not go down any road unless I was sure that there was an exit at the other end. Reversing a trailer, after all, is for farmers and show offs. There seems to be a rule for family holidays that it set to try all parents; whenever you need a toilet/garage/restaurant you cannot find one.

When the noise of hungry children was at its loudest, we decided to stop at the next cafĂ© for some well earned nosh. We drove for miles trying to convince the children that it wouldn’t be long before we found a food outlet.

Nearing desperation we spied signs for a country pub offering an ‘all day menu’. It looked to be a decent pub on a decent road, complete with children’s play area.

As we headed off the main road I saw two signs that made me break out in a mild panic; the first was a declaration that we were entering a dead-end. The second was a sign indicating that the road was un-adopted with the implication that it would be uneven.

By the time all of this news had sunk in it was too late to do anything about it and we could see the welcome sign in the pub window. We were all so tired and hungry that I decided to park up and worry about getting out after we had eaten.

Once all the feeding and watering had been done we returned to our vehicle and mobile home ready for the rest of our journey. I look at the car, then look at the road, then looked at my wife and kids and decided to make them feel proud of me.

It was a nightmare; not just because I couldn’t get the car and trailer to face the right way but because the beer garden was full of people watching every turn of the steering wheel. Some looked sympathetic, some where laughing and I swear I heard one or two of them clapping.

I tried for about a month (that is to say ten minutes) to make it work but I just kept ending up in more and more trouble. It looked more like I was trying to fold the car and caravan in half than turn it round.

Eventually one of the lads in the pub came over to offer some help. He explained that he was a lorry driver and that he couldn’t watch anymore as it was too painful an experience. It took him seconds, and I mean seconds. I swear that he even used just one finger on the steering wheel in an attempt at adding to how ridiculous I looked.

My daughters cheered, my wife said an embarrassed ‘thank-you’, and I went with the driver to the pub to buy him a drink. I walked back to the car feeling like a young buffoon determined to never try reversing a caravan again.

Like I said; Reversing a trailer is for farmers, show offs and smug lorry drivers