Among the greatest achievements of Professor Sir Roger Penrose – apart from the knighthood and a chair in mathematics at Oxford – was to create a design that was supposed not to be possible.
Penrose tilings, a non-repeating pattern that achieves fivefold symmetry, previously held not to exist in nature, was scribbled by the professor in a notebook 20 years ago. To bring the story up to date, he recently made a second discovery of Penrose tilings where he was certain they ought not exist, namely on Kleenex Quilted lavatory paper. When his wife returned from the supermarket with the embossed rolls, Sir Roger was “astonished and dismayed” to see the use to which his discovery had been put. He is now suing Kleenex, claiming an infringement of copyright and demanding that all stocks of the Penrose patterned toilet tissue be seized and destroyed.
Is he over-reacting? Ought he not to see the use of his work by a leading manufacturer of fast-moving consumer goods as the sincerest form of flattery? David Bradley, a director of Pentaplex, a company that has the exclusive licence to the Penrose pattern and is jointly bringing the action with Sir Roger, thinks not. “When it comes to the population of Great Britain being invited by a multinational to wipe their bottoms on what appears to be the work of a Knight of the Realm without his permission, then a last stand must be made,” says Mr Bradley.
This seems overly sensitive. Knights of the Realm were not always so squeamish about bodily functions and waste matter. In fact, the water closet was invented by Sir John Harington, a godson of Elizabeth I. He was a courtier whose wit brought him into much favour from the queen until he went too far. In 1584, he was banished from the court for circulating a risqué story – possibly a forerunner of the one about the three stockbrokers and the lady contortionist – and spent the next seven years in exile at Kelston, near Bath.
Perhaps it was his fondness for the bawdy joke that made him yearn for a lavatory wall on which to inscribe his best work. The lavatory, however, did not exist. So he created one. Who said that necessity wasn’t the mother of invention? He installed the world’s first flushing toilet at Kelston, and called it Ajax. The design can be found in his pamphlet, The Metamorphosis of Ajax, published in 1596. The story does not end there. The Virgin Queen forgave his ribaldry and visited Kelston in 1592. While she was there he somehow persuaded her to try out his invention.
That alone shows what a remarkable man he must have been. Elizabeth was a formidable woman, and an absolute monarch with terrible powers. Prickly at the best of times, she must have succumbed to the most extraordinary charm outside the Sonnets of Shakespeare when she agreed to submit the royal privy parts to a rudimentary device comprising a bowl, leather valve, handle, lever, weights, cistern, and icy water. Mercifully for Harington, she pronounced herself satisfied with the experience and ordered a WC for herself.
The gentry, however, were less willing than their monarch to tangle with technology and stuck to their chamber pots, so to speak. These were often ornately crafted items, some bearing the owner’s coat of arms and some with matching lids. That wealthy families should see only objects of beauty as fitting to come into contact with their fundaments will come as no surprise to those who understand the self-regard of the English aristocracy. The conjoining of excrement and art, perfectly natural in an earlier age, was lost with the growth of functionalism, when every respectable middle-class lavatory bowl was wrought in plain white. It was imaginative of Kleenex to bring decorative splendour back into contact with the English bowel movement, and narrow- minded of Sir Roger to take offence.
Perhaps he has difficulty reconciling art with commerce. He might have been thinking of the great wars of this century when sanitary ware was used as propaganda. Chamber pots with the face of Kaiser Bill or Adolf Hitler on the target zone are today highly collectible items.
Scientists are sensitive, almost beleaguered, figures in Britain today, so Sir Roger might have thought that Kleenex was presenting the public with an opportunity to express, in the crudest fashion, its estimation of mathematicians. If so, he was surely mistaken. He may, however, have hit upon something of use to marketers. Who, for example, would not welcome the opportunity to wipe his or her bottom (here the dictates of political correctness may mislead; in using both pronouns I do not mean to imply that he might also wipe her bottom, I merely bow to the need not to exclude the female from the debate) on lavatory paper printed with the Maastricht Treaty? Or the Citizens’ Charter, or the party manifestos, or anything published by the Health Education Authority? Kleenex could be on to a winner here.
On the other hand, the decline of our island kingdom dates almost precisely from our ceasing to use robust lavatory paper, shiny on one side and dull on the other, and favouring scented, absorbent toilet tissue. A nation that dabs, rather than stoically abrades, its bottom has become effete and can never be at peace with itself.