The public conveniences outside St Mary's Church in Bow haven't been open for years. Two subterranean chambers, one for ladies, the other for gentlemen, long since closed because they no longer meet with council priorities. All that's visible now (beneath the Gladstone statue) are two crescents of spike-topped iron railings, and a dilapidated skylight, and padlocked gates preventing passers-by from entering. One of these gates was wrenched off its hinges a few years back and had to be covered by a metal plate, which is really ugly, but at least offers some protection from vandals for what's behind. About ten years ago there were plans to turn the underground space into an art gallery, indeed there were also plans to turn the underground space into a community centre. But nothing came of it, and even an English Heritage listing couldn't save the entire structure from disrepair. So when a young gentleman invited me down into the gents on my way home last night, I was more than excited enough to take a peek. [photo]
Bow Road's toilets are open again, for one weekend only, as part of an artistic project called Listed Loo. Behind the scheme are a company called Listed Theatre, who like to create alternative work in unconventional spaces. Their previous work was Listed Lido, a swimwear extravaganza which toured the country's open air pools (and snippets of which visitors to last night's Bow Arts Open Studios greatly enjoyed). For their toilet-based work they first researched the history of the Bow Church site, then had to clear out years of detritus from the gents half of the underground space. The steps had to be scraped clean of leaves, dirt and litter. All the surfaces downstairs had to be scrubbed, with cloths and mops, removing graffiti and the occasional mattress. You'll be wanting to see a video of the clean-up process, I'm sure. Good news, you're in luck. And look how smart the place now looks. [photo]
The stairs down still have rusty irregular treads, but gaining access is suddenly as simple as it once was for gentlemen in need of release. And what a fantastic wedged-shape room this is. The floor's tiled with marble, which you just don't see in modern public conveniences, more's the pity. Along the left-hand wall are the urinals, a row of curved porcelain recesses, not so much elegant as chunkily functional. There were no auto-flushing squirters in 1899 when the toilets were built, just open holes draining away to some unseen tank or sewer below. Wherever the washbasins were they're long gone, and the same for the cisterns in the cubicles opposite. The skylight looks like it leaks, the result of years of neglect, but still provides natural illumination even in the depths of a British summer. And just inside the door is what used to be an office, back in the days when public money paid for attendants to keep this place pristine.
There's a man sitting in the office, as part of the art, and he's been given orders to ignore you. It could get very boring for him ignoring the public all day so he has a book to doodle in, and screens to watch, and headphones to listen to. If he puts the headphones down you can pick them up and listen - I'll not tell you to what - or maybe peer over the desk at his very non-Victorian videos. A well hidden CD player broadcasts carefully-curated noises into the echoing chamber. And then there are the cubicles to explore. The first is full of apples, hundreds of apples, all neatly stacked and piled against the far wall. They're symbolic of something (either toil, hope, escape or evolution, according to the themes listed in the programme) but I couldn't work out what. And there are further surprises lurking behind the other doors, including a tree in soil, and a turf-walled cubicle you can safely walk into. The rest of them... I'm not saying. [photo]
On the way out, past the Poplar Board of Works plaque, you should spot the pots of red paint [photo]. They're laid out on the stairs to the inaccessible exit, each containing a brush, and each glaringly red. You'll have spied red paint elsewhere in the installation, daubed across the tiled wall, even splashed on the overalls of the bloke in the office. And this is the proper symbolic bit. If you look up at the statue of William Gladstone, his arm outstretched, you'll see the red paint daubed across his hand by protesters angry at how this monument was funded. The matchgirls at the Bryant & May factory up the road were forced to contribute from their wages, and had to take half a day's unpaid leave on the afternoon the statue was unveiled. Ladies didn't go on strike in those days, but these girls did, and earned a place in history as a result.
Like I said, the Listed Loo experience is open for one weekend only, and that's from two until five in the afternoon today and tomorrow. You might well come to contemplate the art, and that's fun, but I really enjoyed the opportunity to stand in a decaying municipal space I've walked over hundreds of times, but never previously seen inside. They don't make toilets like this any more, that's for sure. Although it's sad to see how even a listed convenience can decay, the loving clean-up undertaken by the artists gives hope that it might somehow be saved from terminal decline. The Bow Arts Trust are taking over responsibility after Listed Theatre leave, so let's hope something long-term good comes out of this short-term event.