Hygiene's uncool? Tell the dying
One of the basic building blocks of modern life is now a symbol of consumerist excess
MARK STEYN | October 1, 2007 |
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, actresses had no known position on toilets. If Myrna Loy or Ginger Rogers, Norma Shearer or Mary Astor had opinions on bodily fluids, they kept them to themselves.
In the seventies, when it was put about that Sarah Miles drank her own urine every day, it got her marked down as a kook. You don't remember Sarah Miles? She starred in Ryan's Daughter, very memorably, but not apparently as memorable as her formidable urine intake. Thirty years on, it's understood in Fleet Street that whenever you pitch an interview with Miss Miles to your editor you'll be expected to bring up the pee-swigging. She usually replies that she hasn't touched a drop in years.
But après Sarah le déluge. The other day, an admiring profile of Cate Blanchett("Green before it was hip, she cites Al Gore and David de Rothschild as heroes and believes that leaf blowers 'sum up everything that is wrong with the human race,' " etc.)revealed that, in order to give her new mansion as small an environmental footprint as possible, she requested that the plumbing be constructed to "allow them to drink their own waste water." Miss Blanchett isn't some dippy loopy Milesy fringe goofball. She's the most acclaimed actress of her time. She's the star of The Golden Age -- no, no, silly; nothing to do with micturition, it's about Elizabeth I. In November, Todd Haynes's new film will star her as Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan? "Haynes became convinced that Blanchett was the right woman for the job while watching her perform in a 2006 production of Hedda Gabler at the Brooklyn Academy of Music," writes Jenny Comita in W magazine. Of course!
This isn't like the old-school Sarah Miles urine-chugging. Miss Blanchett and her husband have paid their architect thousands of dollars to design a system whereby the bodily waste goes down the toilet, gets whisked by pipeline through the walk-in closet, over the balcony, down the wall, back in through the rec room, and up into the wet bar directly into the soda siphon. As her fellow Antipodean, the Aussie wag Tim Blair, observed: "Not exactly Pickfair, is it?" -- Pickfair being the legendary mansion of Douglas Fairbanks and Canada's own Mary Pickford. But who's to say Pissfair won't become the norm in the new Hollywood?
Sheryl Crow, meanwhile, recently proposed that when it comes to, ah, other waste products, her environmentally conscious fans should only use a single sheet of bathroom tissue per visit. I fell asleep three minutes into Al Gore's Live Earth extravaganza, so I don't know whether she turned up to perform some new consciousness-raising song on the theme -- sheet music, as they say in Mexico -- but a celebrity fundraising cover of "All We Are Saying is Give One Piece a Chance" is surely a project all Hollywood can get behind. As it turns out, Miss Crow is a bit of a paper tiger on the eco-bathroom front. In 2005, MTV got Cameron Diaz to host a series called Trippin', in which she and her A-list chums went to Tanzania, Honduras, Nepal and whatnot and praised the environmental friendliness of village life. "I aspire to be like them," Drew Barrymore told viewers after spending a few days in a remote Chilean community unburdened by electricity or indoor plumbing. "I took a poo in the woods hunched over like an animal. It was awesome." Does a Barrymore crap in the woods? Not in John, Ethel and Lionel's day. You can understand why Cate Blanchett's so anti-leaf blowers if they're blowing any leaves from round Drew's stomping grounds.
By now, you're probably wondering: oh, come on, Steyn, you're not going to do lame jokes about modish celebrities' latest obsession for the rest of the column, are you? Well, I just might. But let me slip in a serious point first: a big chunk of so-called "progress" is, in fact, just a matter of simple sanitation and hygiene. Take, for example, America's quartet of murdered presidents: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy. You could reduce that mortality rate by 25 per cent just by washing and rinsing. James Garfield was shot at the Baltimore and Potomac Railway Station on July 2, 1881, and took 2½ months to expire, which is almost as long as he'd been in office before he set off to catch the train. It's now accepted that he died not from the bullet wound but from the various medical personnel poking around inside him looking for the bullet with dirty hands and unsterilized instruments. Joseph Lister's ideas on antisepsis had become standard in Britain but not yet in the United States. Within three years of the president's death, Dr. William S. Halsted opened America's first modern operating room at Bellevue. So, if Garfield was shot today, he'd be home in three days.
But you don't have to be targeted for assassination to reap the benefits of hygiene. Do you know the expression "getting hold of the wrong end of the stick"? It comes from the public latrines of ancient Rome. They were very agreeable design-wise -- marble benches and so forth. And at the end of the bench was a bucket of salt water with a stick in it. On the end of the stick was a sponge. The patron would use the stick to sponge his person in the relevant areas, then put it back in the bucket for the next customer. It doesn't really matter whether you get the wrong end of the stick: the right end was good enough to spread all manner of diseases. Almost every setback suffered by man in the next couple of millennia has some connection to human fecal matter: more crusaders were done in by dysentery than by the enemies' scimitars; America's Civil War soldiers were twice as likely to die in camp racked by disease as in combat. Today, what Drew Barrymore regards as an "awesome" experience is one reason the teeming shantytowns of west Africa have infant mortality rates approaching one in three. Male life expectancy in Côte d'Ivoire: 42. Liberia: 41. Sierra Leone: 37. And the Sheryl Crow one-piece rule would do a lot to help the developed world's statistics head in the same direction.
But, beyond the data, there's something very curious about a culture whose most beautiful women, the beneficiaries of every blessing this bountiful society can shower upon them, are so eager to flaunt their bodily waste in the public prints. And even more bizarre is their conviction that one of the most basic building blocks of modern life -- hygiene -- is now an example of Western consumerist excess. Perhaps it will catch on. Perhaps 10 years from now there will be a Peebucks on every corner selling entirely recycled beverages: a venti urinatte for $6.29, but only "fair trade urine," in which the peasant has been paid a living wage for his specimen, a guarantee symbolized by a logo -- a new Golden Arches, say. And after that who knows where we'll go? As George Monbiot, the bestselling doom-monger from Britain's Guardian, writes: "It is impossible not to notice that, in some of the poorest parts of the world, most people, most of the time, appear to be happier than we are. In southern Ethiopia, for example, the poorest half of the poorest nation on earth, the streets and fields crackle with laughter. In homes constructed from packing cases and palm leaves, people engage more freely, smile more often, express more affection than we do behind our double glazing, surrounded by remote controls." In Ethiopia, male life expectancy is 42.88 years. George was born in 1963. If the streets and fields are crackling with laughter, maybe it's because the happy peasants are reading his syndicated column in the Gamo Gofa Times-Herald. No wonder they're doubled up and clutching their sides. It's not just the dysentery from the communal latrine.