About five years after Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind, the great American public, dissatisfied with the state of its earthbound education, healthcare and transport systems, began to revolt against profligate spending on space exploration. The government, in its wisdom, decided to mount one of the most costly PR exercises ever undertaken, to justify the astronomical budgets needed to continue the race for the stars.
In an act of almost unbelievable arrogance, they launched a Ďcharm offensiveí in which school children around the globe were given the opportunity to quiz these heroic astronauts, via the global media. Given the mind-boggling prospect of children asking questions of the worldís most famous human beings, on literally any topic in the known universe, from black holes to alien intelligence, it is not in the least bit surprising that by far the most commonly asked question was: "How do you go to the toilet in space?"
Now, I donít know about Neil Armstrong, but I have to tell you, Iíve been worrying about this very same problem on river banks, lakesides, shorelines and boats for more than thirty years and frankly, Iím still none the wiser. Equally, isnít it odd that NASA can decide to spend billions of dollars of tax payerís money figuring out how a handful of people can go to the loo, but hardly a penny has been spent on motions of a more earthly nature?
For instance, last summer, I was fishing for barbel on a lovely wooded stretch of the River Kennet. I had only just cast out into a deep hole, bordered on one side by thick ranunculus beds, below a shallow run, having walked a mile or so from the car, when, to my consternation, I realised that at some point in the near future, I would have to accept the consequences of an ill-advised Bangaloor Chicken Phaal, eaten the night before. I was able to ignore the issue for quite some time until, unannounced, an abdominal cramp had me in its grasp, doubled up on my fishing basket and definitely aware that this was not a trifling matter. After a minute or two of panic, I was able to gradually relax and, as the moment past, I cast my eye around for the two important factors learned from my days as a boy scout: Privacy and Paper, only to find that I was in more trouble than I thought.
In thick woodland, away from footpaths, where few people ever venture, you would have thought that privacy is generally assured, but in England Iím afraid you can never be absolutely sure that a walker wonít come along (just at the moment of no return), with a big black labrador, truffling thirty paces ahead. Any amount of swearing and hissing at the dog will not be enough to dissuade its attentions, so eventually its owner will appear through the brambles to discover with what the excitement is all about.
The importance of Privacy is a matter of circumstance, of course and also of culture and environment. Three years ago, while fly-fishing for dorado on an open skiff in the Sea of Cortez, my friend James (who had been surviving on a diet of lime juice, tequila and re-fried beans for several days) suddenly stripped off all his clothes and leapt into the sea. I was astonished at first, not least because I had read the bible of Baja fishing books, ĎThe Baja Catchí, which states: "Öoff the point of Punta Arenas, BEWARE, large and dangerous sharks..."
I was even more horrified to see that James was laying down a chum-trail while swimming on his back, flapping his arms and legs on the surface, his face a mask of grim determination. Later, in the bar, I asked him: Why on earth had he been creating such a commotion?
"I have developed a technique," he replied, darkly. "But it requires some practice." The technique, it transpired, was to float on his back, holding his shorts as far away from his body as possible, while performing a rather flamboyant, reversed breaststroke, in order to waft any clinging effluent away from his skin.
I have vague recollections of this conversation, but I do remember one thing. I am a Jaws-phobic. Have been forever. So, I was especially concerned with the idea of the pale soles of Jamesí feet flashing in the water, while his head was above the waves. I admired his bravery and told him so.
They say that bravery can be exhibited only by a true coward, so I was even more impressed to hear his reply: "As soon as I hit the water, all my sphincters clenched. Iím terrified of sharks."
Thankfully, the River Kennet is not the type of water to hold man-eating predators, but it does have a tremendous flow. I regard myself as a very strong swimmer, but even I, on the rare occasions that I have swum in rivers like the Thames, the Hampshire Avon and (on one marvellous night, when all my sexual fantasies came true) the River Exe, I have been struck by the amazing ability of water to gobble-up human beings and spit them out at the end looking like rotting haggis.
There was only one thing for it. I would have to run the gauntlet of labradors with cold noses by pushing through dense undergrowth and hiding behind as much cover as possible. A decision easily made. The remaining problem of Paper, however, was an even more complex conundrum. Back in the car, I felt sure, there would be at very least an old copy of the A-Z that would, with a little judicious scrumpling, make a fine cleansing parchment. But, with an alarming growl, my tummy reminded me that I may not have that long to wait. At my feet, my canvass fishing bag was trying to ease itself quietly into the shadows, but after so many fishing adventures together, all over the world, I could not endure the thought of cutting a slice of material from it. Long ago, as a teenager, my canvass bag and I went fishing in Alaska. It was a ten-day trip filled with astonishment and humour, not least when a native American guide told me about the old days of the fur trappers. These hardy souls would both trap animals and buy fur from the local native Americans, or Eskimos, including the skins of mink and arctic hare. The locals considered these tiny pelts of little value, generally, apart from one particular use, which, youíve guessed it, was the wiping of bottoms.
In effect, the trappers were buying loo paper, much to the amusement of the Eskimos, who Iím sure, must have thought it an even more hilarious jape that rich European ladies were going to wear it out to the opera.
I realise that mink are a common pest on our riverbanks, but rather like policemen, they are never around when you need one. As I sat pondering, I noticed a vole plop into the river just downstream of a large fallen tree. However, I thought that even if I had managed to catch one (presumably using a bit of delicious root as a bait), Iím not sure I could bring myself to harm it and I was less than willing to make use of a live rodent for obvious reasons.
I ran through a mental check-list and dismissed them one by one. A handful of Marlboro Lights? No. A slice of bread? No. Socks. No. My hat. No, no, no. Vegetation. Oh, alright then. It may surprise the reader to find that I had not immediately struck upon this solution, since, as every school boy knows, leaves are in plentiful supply in the countryside and make perfectly good loo paper. Hah! Well thatís where youíre wrong sonny, because I can tell you from bitter experience that not all leaves are suitable for the purpose. It was a rash decision in more ways than one, that I employed a handful of soft leaves to my delicate nether regions a couple of years ago and, although I have yet to identify the culprit, I have no desire to repeat the experience. Leaves are a touchy subject with me.
In the past, I have used a clump of grass, but there are inherent dangers, such as the tendency of the grass to part in mid stroke. This, of course is not a huge problem and is soluble by the careful folding of stems, first one way and then the other. Equally, my friend James, who seems to be a bit of an expert on the subject, suggests that a better modus operandi would be to leave the grass in situ and to take the mountain to Mohamed, so to speak. I would have given this concept some consideration, if it were not for a mental vision of the sight that might greet the aforementioned walker with his Labrador, especially when I remember my motherís dachshund. I will spare the reader any great detail, except to recount that we were sitting having a cup of tea with some elderly relatives who had come to visit one Sunday, when around the door appeared my motherís dachshund, apparently performing some obscene parody of the can-can, dragging its bottom along the ground while walking on its front legs, grinning fiendishly, with its tongue lolling out. My brother and I fell to the floor, clutching ourselves, of course, but the elderly relatives simply ignored the performance.
But, I digress. You need a certain amount of faith when attending to oneís ablutions on the bankside and I must admit, I was not really in the right state of mind as I pushed into the brambles, armed only with a healthy tuft of coarse grass, but really and truly, the act was going to happen with or without my voluntary participation, so I resolved to make the best of a bad situation.
Everything was going marvellously, until, at the very point when any quick movements may have had disastrous consequences, I became aware of a crashing in the undergrowth, not twenty yards away and approaching at pace.
Simultaneously, I heard the awful words of a female walker, echoing through the woods, summoning my humiliation: "Good dogs, come here! Come on, what have you found?"