“If the club was, like, the main bit, the main plot, then the toilet is like a sub-plot to the main club. It’s like the underneath; the workings of the club.”
Thus spake Charlie, an 18-year-old from Crawley who would soon be off to study Psychology at Reading Uneh. If you were waiting outside in the queue, worrying about whether or not your Nikes count as ‘trainers’ and eagerly awaiting an evening with Channel 4’s new series Up All Night, you might not be expecting much more than a surreptitious grope. Superficially, this episode looked to be Channel 4 at its best and worst, as minicab-loads of Crawley folk descended on JJ Whispers nightclub for an evening of osculation and urination, all to the sound of your favourite MASSIVE CLUB BANGERZ.
And yet, once you navigated through the dry ice, peeled your feet along the Jaegermeister-stained dancefloor and entered the titular toilet, you soon realised that this was not your bog-standard sexploitation show, but rather fifty minutes of sustained, microcosmic genius. Student Charlie was right: in the toilet we see the unravelling of life itself played out in the guise of sub-plot. The nightclub is the Athenian woodland, where the shallow Helenas and Lysanders of suburbia can be lusty by moonlight; but in the toilet we meet the Mechanicals, and the true tragicomedy of the modern world.
Oddly, in another Channel 4 revelation, Gogglebox, The Nightclub Toilet was panned by the armchair critics. It seemed that the ‘normal’ families couldn’t see past the sleaziness of it all, and were too perturbed by bodily functions to actually listen to the narratives of the clubbers. Curiously, the most touching tales did not come from the clubbers, but from the people so affectionately known as toilet attendants. I was unaware that toilet attendants were not employed by the club, and make money simply from the tips they receive from choosing the right product. Some stick with deodorant and aftershave; others have branched out into lollipops and flip-flops. They are twentyfirst century rag-and-bone men, and some have even come up with catchy sales techniques. Desmond, a Nigerian national who has been working in nightclub toilets for three years, encourages tips with poetry like ‘No spray, no lay’ and ‘No splash, no gash’. Before you are outraged by this misogyny, consider that Desmond’s female equivalent, Dami (also Nigerian – apparently it is the easiest work for an African immigrant to acquire) entices her female customers with this ditty, sung to the tune of ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’: ‘Freshen up your punani, for your boyfriend!’ Unlike Desmond, Dami is at least promoting monogamy, and the extra pennies earned through a comedy song are vital.
Often, the toilet attendant has his or her own story to tell, but is instead resigned to the role of confidant(e), listening to the comparatively banal anxieties of the weekend clubbers. Off-shift, Desmond tells of his family plight in Nigeria: he has lost his mother, father and sister, and came to the UK, naturally, for a better life. Dami needs to provide for her children, and naively thought that after five years in the country, she would have more to offer them. Unfortunately the details of her story are silenced, as she listens with boredom to tales of online-dating and backcombing. At one point she has to rip some toilet paper for an inebriated reveller, too weary to wipe herself after urination. Demi nods and smiles, in a post-slavery ‘ahyessir’ mutation, static in her toilet, showing so much of the futile determination of a Beckettian heroine that she may as well be buried up to her neck in sand.
However, all this pessimism is not entirely fair on the clubbers who, more often than not, are genuinely interesting to listen to and observe. Charlie picks up on this in his point about sub-plots, but the fascination of the nightclub toilet begins in its architecture. In the loud, sweaty, whirling environment of the dancefloor/bar, the toilet is a sanctuary: a quiet place which gives great opportunity for discussion, revelation and reflection. The presence of the toilet attendant even gives the space an air of confession, where one can puke up their soul as well as their vomit. The staff of JJ Whispers are quick to gender stereotype: in general, men take minutes in the toilet while gaggles of women chanting ‘Here Come The Girls’ spend hours doing their hair, reapplying their makeup and gossiping with strangers.
This stereotype is largely accurate, but this is not to say that men do not go through moments of self-discovery in the loos. Perhaps the most affecting of these moments came from military man Daniel, who was adopted at a young age and has only just discovered his cousin, Michael, with whom he was out on the lash. Michael looks up to his cuz, and having been dumped by his wife and estranged from his young son, he has decided to follow his new hero into the Army. Daniel, bathing in the praise, slurs his poignant advice back to his Padawan, telling him that Michael can’t join to the Army just to get over his missus, and must consider the effect on his son. But Michael won’t budge. He could be a builder, or a tree-surgeon, but all that is just ‘bullshit’ compared to slipping on an IED in Afghanistan and getting your limbs torn apart. Nothing will make little Mike Jr more proud that to see his daddy with a bionic arm, right? In their exploration of pride, masculinity, the motivations of war and the art of the man hug, Daniel and Michael are two Hemingwayan juggernauts in the already brimming literary maze that is the nightclub toilet.
Before Charlie’s concluding words (which began this essay), we see the student inspecting a twenty pence coin that has nestled in the urinals. It was there when he first soberly entered the toilet, and it remains at the end of the evening, a strange symbol of continuity amid the chaos in Crawley. In his drunken state, Charlie considers picking out the urine-stained coin as a kind of trophy, but instead leaves it, not willing to conclude his club experience with piss-soaked hands. The fact that this coin stays put for next weekend’s party people seems somehow mimetic of the shining nuggets of real life that can be found in this usually dirty environment. The nightclub toilet is a place where fools become wise men; where the vacant become the engaged.