A word of warning before we start – this column is about toilet habits.
I say ‘warning’ because some people are ill at ease discussing what we do on the loo but I’ve always been very comfortable with it.
That’s possibly because I grew up in a house where my mother – who spends, at a conservative estimate, around 83 per cent of her time on the toilet and the other 17 per cent on the phone – always left the bathroom door ajar and, after emptying her bowels, shouted things like ‘jeepers creepers, that broccoli didn’t agree with me’.
I was chatting to a group of colleagues in the work canteen the other day when I happened to mention that I had a set routine when using a toilet that isn’t my own.
If I am caught short in a public place – a café, for example – and have to use the lavatory, once inside the cubicle I first wipe the toilet seat with considerable vigour, even if it looks fairly clean to start with, and then, using carefully folded sheets of toilet paper, meticulously and with precision cover the seat.
Only when it is fully lined and there is absolutely no chance of any part of my bottom touching the seat, will I sit and concentrate on the business at hand.
As I told this to my colleagues, I noticed them staring at me in increasingly quizzical and slightly fearful fashion, as if I’d confessed to murdering four people and stowing their body parts in plastic bags in the coat cupboard.
Upon finishing the tale there was silence.
‘Is that not what everyone else does?’ I ventured.
‘No,’ they cried in unison and then stood up as one and spat in my face.
Ok, so the last bit isn’t quite true, but they were certainly a little taken aback at something I had previously considered not just perfectly normal but sensible.
Say you’re en route to some far-flung destination and stop at a service station on the M3 to use the loo. How many people sit on those toilets each day?
Let’s hazard a guess at 10,000. So working on the assumption that each cubicle is cleaned every two hours during a 10-hour period – I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, as you may be able to tell – potentially 2,000 other derrieres have perched on the same seat. Many of whom, lest we forget, will be big, hairy long-distance lorry drivers called Alan who probably don’t shower as often as we might.
Call me picky but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with my bottom coming into contact, so to speak, with 1,999 other bottoms, so it seems to me only natural to line the seat with loo roll or at the very least give it an energetic rub first.
On returning from work, I told Mrs Canavan of my toilet procedure. ‘You do what?’ she said, muting the TV while Pointless was on – an indication that this was serious.
‘We’ve been together 11 years and you’ve had this secret all along?’ she added, slightly dramatically, as if discovering I’d been having a passionate and lusty affair with a 21-year-old brunette which, as it happens, I am – Mrs Canavan doesn’t read this column so it’s safe to confess.
‘I don’t do it on my own toilet, just other people’s,’ I said, in a bid to clarify matters, but she just looked at me the same way she did the first occasion I removed my trousers in front of her – with pity – and muttered ‘weirdo’.
Hurt, I retired to the kitchen and nipped on the internet to see if I really was abnormal. There was mixed news. On the plus side there are apparently millions of toilet-lining folk like me, so I’m far from alone.
But the bad news – and this stunned me to the core – it turns out putting paper on the seat before you sit doesn’t lessen the risk of spreading bacteria and other nasty little diseases, it actually increases it.
Toilet seats, I read with the horror and devastation of a man who has just realised his lifelong lavatory routine has been a total waste of time, are specifically designed to prevent bacteria dwelling on their surface for more than a few minutes.
‘You won’t catch anything from a toilet seat,’ according to a chap called Dr William Schaffner, described as ‘one of the world’s foremost toilet bacteria experts’, which must be a terrific thing to have on your passport under ‘occupation’.
Then the real kick to the stomach – every time you flush your toilet (and apparently this is why the recommended advice is always flush with the lid down), germs are propelled six feet into the air and surrounding environment – including on to the very toilet paper idiots like me then use to sit on.
It means that for the last 41 years I have been wiping the bacteria of others directly onto my own bottom, whereas all those people I’d previously thought of as ill-mannered and dirty have lovely, luxurious germ-free rumps. Rarely have I been so devastated.