Friday, 29 January 2010

Modern manners

I'm lost

Funny places, English universities, they have been for years. Maybe they always were. Still, I see much less of them nowadays.

Yesterday I went to one, for 'a meeting'. What a lovely physical environment to work in, how privileged. And the coffee was good, too.

Came the time to visit the ablutions. My hostess directed me '...down the corridor, then up some little stairs...'  I got as far as the little stairs, then got lost and found myself in a cul-de-sac (the usual Brummie word for a dead-end). I was spotted through an open door, by a lady in an office.

'Can I help you?' asked the lady – and did I detect that edgy cadence of suspicion or even threat that these linguistically innocent words can imply?

'Yes, please, I'm looking for the Gents.'

'And you are...?'

I had not anticipated this. I could not see how either the nature of my mission as stated, or the nature of the answer that she might supply in response, could possibly relate to such information. None of her business in fact. So, as if I considered that she might not have heard correctly, I repeated:

'I'm looking for the Gents.

'But who are you?'

Perhaps she was toilet-monitor. Perhaps she was professor of such matters. Either way, I never know how to respond favourably to Jacks-in-Office, the only rule being not to encourage them. So, rather than follow my immediate inclination, to walk off and find the Gents for myself, as I had been prepared to do anyway, I just stood.

Pause, and glower. 'There's a unisex toilet along there on the right'

I thanked her and went on my way.

'Unisex toilet', indeed. How gloriusly naff. What a dreadful self-proclaiming genteelism!

Poor soul. There is a Great Cull coming to the English universities. I wonder whether as a result some of the people there might find their way back to Planet Earth. And the concerns and  priorities of people still working there.. Should I risk holding my breath?

As others see us

It suddenly occurs to me: maybe the lady blogs. Maybe her own understanding of this brief encounter is already posted up somewhere, how yesterday she found a dreadful person outside her office door, who not only ignored her challenge, twice, but persisted in asking for genderised ablutions. She told him...

Never mind, I am off to the Palace of Westminster on Monday. I already know where to find the Gents there and, even if I get lost, I shall not experience anything but courtesy!


  1. Who are you indeed. I'd like to see what my students' faces if i replied with that question when they ask to go to the biffy.
    perhaps she was referring to the derriere and meant to say, "Butt, who are you?" Now that is truly a philosophical ally

  2. oops, I was bamboozled by the various windows in the comment process, - I meant to say it was a mystery worthy of a university classroom.

  3. There is so much protocol around going to the toilet - almost more than any other activity, I should think.

    Did you have a badge which said "Andrew Sutton" on it? What about a delegates list?

    Especially around the men's and the disabled toilet. (No, the toilet is not disabled, and it is an accessible toilet - we hope!)

    There is a lot in the works or in the plumbing in most English universities. Older, than, say, Russell-style.

  4. These days visitors to institutions and companies usually wear a badge of some sort to show that they are there for a purpose. Did you have such a thing? We are constantly being told by all and sundry to be alert and I remember being told to check that anyone I saw in my building who I did not know and wasn't wearing a badge, was there legitimately by asking - politely - who they were and if I could help.

  5. And if they don't have a badge, they wear an identity card or business card.