This, of course, is accompanied by the usual wintery gripes about how the councils have cocked up on gritting the roads and countered by accusations of how we have lost the old Blitz spirit. You'd have thought there were more important things to concern us but no - the weather dominates the news.
Sitting indoors, however, I can’t help thinking how much worse it could be. The central heating is on and the plumbing – miracle of technology – still works despite the cold. A working lavatory in inclement weather was even possible in the eighteenth century, thanks to Joseph Bramah (1748-1814), an inventor better known for his later work as a locksmith. In 1778, however, Bramah made a vital improvement to Alexander Cummings’ original water closet of 1775. He noticed that Cummings’ lavatory tended to freeze in cold weather and came up with the valve closet. This ingenious contraption had a hinged flap that sealed the bottom of the bowl when not being flushed and – at a stroke – managed to stop any smell coming up from the sewers and, crucially, stopped the water in the bowl from freezing solid.
Today, of course, our lavatories have no need of Bramah’s hinged flap and yet, despite their sophistication, it is still possible for the pipes to freeze. Few people, fortunately, have to undergo the horrible wintery defecation experienced by Henry Miller (1891-1980), as he recounts in his seminal work Tropic of Cancer.
On publication, Tropic of Cancer was declared obscene and banned for decades. It was finally published in the States after a groundbreaking obscenity trial of 1961 (as had happened with Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Britain), leading to a radical rethink of America’s pornography laws. Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Musmanno declared in disgust that “Cancer is not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.” Judge for yourself…
Here, Miller has foolishly taken a job as an exchange Professor of English at a Lycée in Dijon. The Lycée turns out to be both dilapidated and Spartan, more akin to a monastic retreat than a centre of education. Miller is forced to take revenge on his boss, Monsieur le Censeur.
The fog and snow, the cold latitude, the heavy learning, the blue coffee, the unbuttered bread, the soup and lentils, the heavy pork-packer beans, the stale cheese, the soggy chow, the lousy wine have put the whole penitentiary into a state of constipation. And just when everyone has become shit-tight the toilet pipes freeze. The shit piles up like ant hills; one has to move down from the little pedestals and leave it on the floor. It lies there stiff and frozen, waiting for the thaw. On Thursdays the hunchback comes with his little wheelbarrow, shovels the cold, stiff turds with a broom and pan, and trundles off dragging his withered leg. The corridors are littered with toilet paper; it sticks to your feet like flypaper. When the weather moderates the odor gets ripe; you can smell it in
forty miles away. Standing over that ripe dung in the morning, with a toothbrush, the stench is so powerful that it makes your head spin… In the night, when I am taken short, I rush down to the private toilet of M. le Censeur, just of the driveway… His toilet doesn’t flush either but at least there is the pleasure of sitting down. I leave my little bundle for him as a token of esteem. Winchester
(Henry Miller - Tropic of Cancer 1934)