Is It Me Or Is Everything Just S**t?

“Life is hard, Trace”, my Dad used to say to me. It drove me around the bend when he did but he was right. It is hard to keep packing away the shrivelled remains of old dreams into gilded reliquaries and to find new ones to parade about in delicate white Christening robes. It is what we do but it isn’t easy.

I closed my literary gift company since my last blog. I lost my courage somewhere along the line and you can’t do much when you’re not brave. Coping with this idea of failure has been hard, as my Dad said it would be. I have felt a little bit useless, a little bit weepy, a lot bit like I want to hide away. So, things have been…well, they’ve been sh*t but as a friend reminded me this morning, sometimes you just have to face up to the sh*t and get a move on.

From photo montage "Their Daily Duty" by digital artist Cristina Guggeri. Click here for more of her work

From photo montage “Their Daily Duty” by digital artist Cristina Guggeri. See more of Christina’s work:

We were having this conversation because of another aspect of life that is hard for me to face up to, loos and the goings on within them. I cannot talk about the loo. I don’t want other people to talk about it. Don’t tell me that everybody goes to the loo; Death is The Great Leveller, not Poop. I just don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to watch breakfast cereal ads where fibre is a selling point. I don’t want to hear about routines, or curries. I don’t want to know that somebody is texting me from the bathroom. Ever. I would frankly prefer a world in which I never had to think about that.

There was the brief stage when our kids were small when 23Thorns and I quite happily and with great relish discussed the contents of nappies but since that passed I am more poo-averse than I was beforehand, having seen and discussed poo more than enough for a lifetime. I have fulfilled my lifetime poo-talk quota and I have neither to think about it nor talk about it anymore thankyouverymuch.

Except, maybe my friend was right. Maybe it is time to just face the realities. Out with the old and in with the new. Life has been hard of late. It has been sh*tty; it is high time it was no longer. How did they dump their baggage in time past? Because I really need a roadmap here. I’m not sure how to start over. I’m not sure how to start writing again either. The W.C. seems as good a place to start as any really.



Generally when I think of life a long time ago, I think of it as being quite smelly and many of the people as quite dirty. In Samuel Pepys’ diary which he kept for 9 years, he mentions his wife bathing only once. She promised, after seeing the filth in the water, that she would do so more often but Pepys had his own ideas about how her resolution would work out. I think of London’s Big Stink and the Fleet River choked with effluent. On a visit to Oxford, King Charles II of England and his court were said to have been really dirty and quite smelly too by Anthony a Wood.

Though they were neat and gay in their apparel, yet they were very nasty and beastly, leaving at their departure their excrements in every corner, in chimneys, studies, colehouses, cellars. Rude, rough, whoremongers; vaine, empty, careless

Beastly indeed.

But it was not always so. The Minoans had flushing toilets, with wooden seats, about 4000 years before they came into regular use in England. Rainwater was collected in an overhead container and used to flush the ummmm….well…you know into earthenware pots which were cleared regularly. In Egypt they had sand-filled loos, cat boxes, that servants emptied. In China, the latrines had stone seats which could have been a little chilly but they threw in armrests for the comfort factor. Early civilizations in the Indus Valley had houses with almost modern plumbing. Bathrooms had waste pipes connected to sewers and ventilation shafts. The Romans, renowned for their cleanliness, were better at bathing than they were at pooing. A lot of Roman effluent was just thrown into the streets where it was flushed by street washers in the mornings into drains. This from the fabulous website They did have lovely drains though.

So, the ancient and classical civilizations had fairly effective and sophisticated sanitation. They did show a penchant for communal pooping which sits about as well with me as does the texting while on the loo of today but they were at least not piddling on the stairs.

In 1589 the following ordinance was issued in England:

“Let no one, whoever, he may be, before,
at, or after meals, Early or late, foul the
staircases, corridors; or closets with Urine
or other filth.”

Roman Public Latrines (source: Wikipedia) proving that an empire that poos together stays...oh never mind.

Roman Public Latrines (source: Wikipedia) proving that an empire that poos together stays…oh never mind.

The garderobes of the early middle ages were somewhat grim: holes in the ground which led from the castle walls and down to the ground or occasionally directly into the moat. (In 1313 Sir William of Norwich built a stone wall around the outlets on his tower. A man with some sense of decorum. I like him.) Some garderobes, like those at Southwell Palace, were quite pally à la the Roman communal latrines but did at least have wall separating them. The four privy closets in Southwell though look quite intimate next to the over 20 in both Hampton Court Palace and Bodiam Castle.

Southwell's Garderobes

Southwell’s Garderobes

For those not at court, there was a public necessarium on London Bridge itself which served 138 houses. Heaven help him who sailed beneath the bridge at the wrong moment. For out and about urges in Edinburgh, where there were fewer easements than there were in London, you could hire a man with a bucket and a curtain. He would screen you with his curtain, while you filled his bucket with cloaca. In an excavation of an ordure pit beneath a medieval monastery, remnants of strips of torn cloth were found. It is presumed these were used as loo paper. What Edinburgh bucket-boy offered you or didn’t in its stead just doesn’t bear thinking about.

By the Tudor period not much had changed. There were more privies about. They generally led to cess pits now as opposed to directly into rivers after questions raised about hygiene in an outbreak of plague. The gongfermors were still employed to clear out the cess pits. The average man just yelled Gardy Loo! from his window and threw his night’s leavings into the street below for the nightsoil men to clean up. Henry VIII, as was his general wont, had a spectacularly lavish privy off his bedchamber. No using of the Great House of Easement for him! In 1547 a close stool was made for him (it must have been his very last as he died at the end of January in that year. Perhaps he never even had the opportunity to use it). It had a black padded velvet seat, was decorated with ribbons, silks and fringes within, and was held all together with 2000 gilt nails. There was a pewter bowl beneath it which would be emptied by The Groom of The Stool.

In 1539, one groom recorded how Henry VIII had taken laxative pills and an enema, sleeping until 2am “when His Grace rose to go upon his stool which, with the working of the pills and the enema, His Highness had taken before, had a very fair siege”.

There are two boys in our house. I have witnessed a fair siege or two myself.

Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I who bathed once a month “whether she needed it or no”, saw the first advances in indoor plumbing in hundreds of years. Her godson, John Harrington, invented for her a flushing toilet, a water closet. Thankfully Erasmus had also declared in this period that it was no longer polite to talk to people while they did their business, a tradition that held until we got ourselves cell phones.


When portable water closets became all the rage in the time of Pepys in the 17th century, to have your WC in your drawing room was quite de rigueur, even if you had a curtain to protect the dignity of those with urges.

Harrington’s invention though, later improved upon by Thomas Crapper, started the long, happy slide to modern plumbing and dedicated private bathrooms. The Victorians improved upon things and by the mid 19th century bathrooms looked much as they do today.

Snazzy Victorian loos

Snazzy Victorian loos


Victorians and their gadgets

Victorians and their gadgets

The average family still used outhouses and or communal facilities but we were well on our way. Well on our way to being profligate with things of wonder like piped water and sewers and hot water and a flushing loo that didn’t smell the maw of hell itself.

Some Victorians were still quite cross about plumbing

Some Victorians were still quite cross about plumbing

In 1837, William Eassie published a book on indoor plumbing for use by architects and plumbers. His table of household water use for one day, lists 25 gallons as reasonable.

Today, the average American family of four uses 400 gallons a day. It makes me wonder if we are perhaps more full of sh*t today than we have ever been. Certainly I have been full of it in not facing up to the reality that my business is gone and that I just need to find a new one to replace it. Any dream will do. So thank you, friend Chow, for making talk about poo for 1700 words. I am quite ready for the next movement. And even as one who has both children and pets and hasn’t been in the bathroom on my own for over 10 years, rest assured, that whatever the Romans or Henry VIII’s mates had to say on the matter, it is never okay to text somebody while in the necessary house.

Unless otherwise credited, most of the information in this blog comes from Lawrence Wright’s Clean and Decent, The Fascinating History of The Bathroom and the W.C. (1960) Buy it if you find it. It is wonderful!










30 thoughts on “Is It Me Or Is Everything Just S**t?

  1. I’m glad to see you back Tracey – though sad that your company folded, and before I ever bought anything from you. Maybe it is me that’s to blame. So – it isn’t all shit, but it is all my fault. I only ever sent you a fiver for a beer. Now might be a good time to cash it in. Earlier in the month I received a Paypal payment of 98 pence (royalties for an article I sweated over once upon a time, years ago now) – it’s a funny old life. Wondering what to spend it on.
    Take my word for it – as one who has to bounce back fairly regularly – you will bounce back, in your own time. Don’t let anyone push you too hard to get back on form – not even yourself.
    A small correction: I don’t think 1832 is strictly speaking Victorian – is it? But maybe it’s not your caption.

    • It isn’t strictly Victorian, no. 1837 was the coronation, I think. And I found a typo! I am clearly rusty.

      Sometimes the beer is as good as the money, sometimes it’s better.

      Now I just have to whip 23 back into shape and life will return to normal 🙂

  2. Sorry to hear about your business. I can sympathise with plans not working out and the dejection that follows. May things turn around for you soon.

    This was hugely entertaining. I reckon it can compete with Felicity Beedle’s (aka Terry Pratchett’s) The Wonderful World of Poo. I am curious what 23thorns would do with this particular subject.

    One question: How royally did you need to mess up to become Groom of the Stool? (Or was it considered an honour to clear out His Majesty’s stool?)

    • Thanks Kokkie. I am haranguing 23 to write about the day a taxi full of pregnant women crashed through our wall but I will get him to pencil it in too!

      Of course it was a great honour to be the Groom, to stand about at 2 in the morning watching your Lord lay siege to the potty 🙂 Seriously though, the close access it gave you to the King made it a very important position.

      • Don’t know if I want to be that close to the king, no matter how important it makes me.

        A taxi through your wall!? Garden or house? I hope no one got hurt.

      • I agree about the stool job. We were not made with courtly ambition. Thank goodness.

        Through the wall. It was an awful business with terrible injuries. Everybody left the property alive, if broken, though.

      • Did your family come through unscathed at least? I’ve heard of this kind of thing happening before, but can’t really imagine it.

      • Absolutely! My son was home sick from school when it happened and he was traumatised – it wasn’t pretty – but he did stuff. I think trauma is always relieved by having been useful throughout it. He did stuff! He helped carry water and ice and umbrellas and phones until the EMTs arrived. I was a little cut up and spent a month on ARVs. Our housekeeper, a sangoma by night, had a faux fit and collapsed in “convulsions” at the time. BUT, now we are all fine 🙂 This might deserve two stories, I fear.

  3. For someone with a phobia about faeces, you have certainly thrown yourself in at the deep end in this post Ms Tracy. Sorry about your business. Sometimes we have to learn the hard way that what we want and what other people want are two entirely different things. It sucks but it’s life and as you so rightly say, and your most wise and wonderful dad said “you just have to get on with it”. How we deal with sh*t that happens in our lives and how much sh*t that heaps up is what makes us “us”. When you are down at the bottom of a sewer looking up and you can’t see anything for the rain of sewerage that seems to be ever presently flowing down from above, it is incredibly hard to see that sometimes shit happens as a way to redirect your life. There might just be something wonderful around the corner that needs a laxative effect in order to clear a blockage. You get past that blockage and out of the septic tank and into the sunshine and everything starts to look much better and smell a whole lot more like roses. As humans, we get dunked in the tank on regular occasions through our lives and most of us are more like the English chaotic dung heaps than those well organised Roman’s who knew how to shift sh*t with aplomb. I guess we can learn something from those Romans, they certainly knew how to dispose of their waste quickly and efficiently. Perhaps the secret is to use a lot of olive oil Ms Tracy…not quite fibre cereal but I couldn’t resist ;).

      • Faux olive oil?! I guess they have to get all of that completely unwanted G.M.O. canola into as many hidden places as they can as no-one is buying it any more…just goes to show you really need to check where your food is coming from eh? I guess that faux olive oil is perfect for this post and deserves to be down the toilet! 😉

      • Mr 23Thorns must have told you about my predilection with shrooms and all things fungi. I am currently fist pumping the air at the thought that mushrooms were rebelling against their human overlords!

  4. So glad to see you back. I’d been worried about what the silence from you and 23 might mean. I’m sorry to hear about both your business and the accident with its ongoing trauma. Sometimes life does serve up a load of sh!t. I hope your life serves you with an equal amount of roses now.

  5. A wonderfully involving glimpse at our historical conveniences, Tracy, though coming as a distraction for such sad news makes it not so funny, I fear 😦

    I do hope that something comes up, as it invariably will to such a well-rounded character as yourself, and that you can get an enormous enjoyment for whatever it is 🙂

    The old saying came to mind as I read your news – while one door shuts, another will open – and we can all but hope this is true for you, too 🙂

    Our household also suffered from a van crashing right through our living room window, and we thank heavens that nobody was as badly injured as we might have been. But the shock of it can easily last some time, can’t it? Especially when youngsters are involved!

    Take care now, and we’ll be thinking of you 🙂

  6. I, too, am sorry about your business. And the carful of pregnant women . . . glad you are ok now, but sorry you had such trauma. Seems to be a lot of that going around, eh? And many of my favourite bloggers have slowed down for a while, but I can’t complain; I’ve hardly posted this year. Soon, though.
    Hang in there; Like rabid, I believe that life hands us sh*t but we can still make compost and grow roses . . . but I do think you have enough compost material to last quite a while, so I wish you only gentle rains and warm sunshine, Now go out and smell those roses, will you? Hi to Mr. 23, too; may you both live long and prosper. 🙂

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