Richard Smyth is the author of one of 2012’s most unusual and interesting titles: Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History of Toilet Paper. Described by Robin Ince on BBC Radio 4’s Loose Ends as “the ultimate loo book”, this extraordinary title answers all the questions you never thought to ask about the product we can’t live without. But where on earth did Richard Smyth uncover all of his fascinating nuggets of information?
Imagine you’re writing a book on the long, colourful and thoroughly absorbing history of toilet paper. You’ve covered all the usual bases: the origins of paper in mediaeval China; the invention of modern ‘medicated paper’ in 1857 by the New York quack Joseph Gayetty; the all singing, all dancing space-age super-bidets now edging out loo-roll in Japan…
Now you’re after the weird stuff, the quirky details, the off-beat nuggets of fascinating fact that shed new light on the way the world wipes. Where do you look?
You’d think that Captain John G. Bourke’s 1891 classic Scatalogic Rites Of All Nations would be the perfect starting place. It is, after all, staggeringly, alarmingly, frighteningly comprehensive. It has a chapter on ‘The Ordure Of The Grand Lama Of Tibet’. It has a chapter on ‘Tolls Of Flatulence Exacted Of Prostitutes In France’. It has a chapter – my personal favourite – on ‘The Use Of Bladders In Making Excrement Sausages’.
But on toilet paper, it is strangely silent.
Other obscure works throw up the odd gem: Samuel Rolleston’s Philosophical Dialogue Concerning Decency (1751), for instance, tells of an old Dutch woman, who, seated beside a gentleman in a communal privy, offers him her mussel shell for wiping (or, rather, scraping) once she has finished with it.
But the thing is, the really good stuff isn’t hidden away in mouldering, un-studied monograms by forgotten fetishists and little-read weirdos. It’s in the Classics library. It’s in the books you’re always told you ought to read but don’t.
There was a time when the highbrow and the infantile mingled happily. Just leaf through a book of eighteenth-century poetry and you’ll find plenty of instances of public intellectuals, serious writers, talking of, among a dazzling variety of other things, toilets: in George Farewell’s ‘Privy Love For My Landlady’, for example, the poet thanks his loathesome landlady for curing him of a bout of constipation (‘When lo! who should pop by but Mother Masters,/At whose bewitching look soon stubborn arse stirs’).
Thus, some of the most illuminating bum-wiping material comes from our most highly-regarded writers and thinkers. From the 16th century, cleric and scholar François Rabelais (‘I have, by long and curious experience, found out a means to wipe my bum, the most lordly, the most excellent, and the most convenient that was ever seen’) – from the 17th, poet Robert Herrick (who placed a curse on any reader who dared to wipe his bum with pages from Herrick’s book: ‘May every ill that bites, or smarts,/Perplex him in his hinder parts’) – from the 18th, Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Paul’s (‘We may, while they strain their throats,/Wipe our arses with their votes’).
Any writer who thus mentions the unmentionable does us a favour by reminding us that the seemingly unsavoury parts of life are still, well, parts of life. Toilet paper – so often a taboo, and yet so utterly ubiquitous – is a prime example. My book, Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History Of Toilet Paper, is my attempt to tell the epic tale of humanity’s love-hate relationship with its torcheculs, xylospongions and lotion-infused three-ply – but who are today’s Rabelaises, Swifts and Herricks? Which of our literary writers venture into this enjoyably daring territory nowadays?
Salman Rushdie, in Midnight’s Children, eloquently expresses the distaste of the hygienic Indian for the British way of wiping (‘No water near the pot… it’s true, My God, they wipe their bottoms with paper only!’) – Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine goes into rewarding detail regarding the fine points of loo-roll (‘Perforation! Shout it out!’) – and Martin Amis, in, say, Money, shows himself to be an heir to Rabelais in terms of the explicit extravagance of his bathroomery (‘I made a highly complicated, demanding, almost experimentalist visit to the bathroom…’).
There must be more: more laureates of the loo-roll, bards of the bum-fodder. Who have I missed?
Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History of Toilet Paper by Richard Smyth is published by Souvenir Press. It is available in hardback and as an e-book. Out now.