Toilet paper research is going through the motions

It may be soft, strong and very, very long, but ‘luxury’ bathroom tissue is also blocking the UK’s drains.

Clever people hold marketing to blame for many evils, notably inducing less clever people to want things, to which marketing must in all honesty hold up its hand and plead guilty.

Back in 1965, for example, after riots in Watts County, Los Angeles, in which disaffected black people indulged in a frenzy of beating and looting, that peerless commentator Alistair Cooke pointed an accusing finger at the “pimping role” of television advertising “with its ceaseless tantalising exposure of the white man’s dainties for sale, or perhaps for looting”.

More recently, and further down the journalistic scale, Roy Hattersley lamented “the constant bombardment with advertisements and commercials proclaiming that the good life is the acquisition of material possessions”.

I do not propose to argue here the pros and cons of materialism and the consumer society, other than to make the commonplace observation that all the known and tried alternatives are less satisfactory, either in terms of providing human wellbeing and comfort or in the fairness with which they distribute the good things of life.

It is, however, because one has to concede that marketing is not without faults that it is important to step heavily on any new calumny laid at its door, and I regret to say that one such has just arrived. Race riots and the offended sensibilities of that delicate aesthete Lord Hattersley are one thing, but blocked drains are quite another. And whatever British Gas may claim to the contrary, the lavatories of Britain are not clogged by false wants.

It may surprise you to learn that British Gas has what it calls a “plumbing arm”. And it may surprise, and even disgust, you to learn further that this arm was to thrust down a blocked lavatory (though not necessarily the same one) on no fewer than 35,000 separate occasions in the first six months of this year.

In an attempt to find out why this happened and so often, the company poked its plumbing head round the U-bend and discovered that the culprit was new-fangled fancy “bathroom tissue”, which takes much longer to break down when immersed than old-fashioned loo paper.

Its thirst for knowledge whetted, British Gas commissioned some independent research (its own plumbing arm being understandably too tired to take on the job) and discovered that low-priced and recycled paper disintegrated within minutes of being flushed whereas the luxury brands took up to half an hour.

At one extreme, Sainsbury’s Low Price became as nothing within the three minutes whereas something called Andrex Moist Wipes was still moist, wiped, and intact five days after leaving its owner’s behind.

Although British Gas stops short of blaming marketing for blocking the nation’s sewers with frivolous products, the implication is nevertheless there. Had we stuck, so to speak, to the old-fashioned lavatory paper, which was shiny on one side, dull on the other, and invigoratingly abrasive used either way, our drains would be as clear and clean as their Victorian designers intended.

While this may be true in terms of plumbing, it makes no sense in terms of the ineluctable march of progress. Man did not get where he is today by wiping his bottom as though time had stood still.

The invention of bathroom tissue is as much a part of the story of evolution as the aeroplane or the trouser press. Humankind in its ceaseless quest to make life easier and more comfortable is endless in its ingenuity. And the stimulus is wealth. At some point in time it was discovered that the rich are different from you and me, they have more delicate anal orifices. So for them was created softer, kinder material. With economic growth, mass-production and rising wages, the softness and sensitivity of bottoms became more socially widespread to the point where most of us now dab our behinds with paper of a refinement that was once only within the reach of a privileged few.

You do not have to be either a raging socialist or a diehard conservative to agree that the occasional blocked drain is a small price to pay to live in a country where every man and woman has equal access to a non-abrasive wipe.

That is not to deny the melancholy attraction of recalling a bygone age in which lavatory paper could be wrapped around a comb, raised to the lips and used as a kind of musical instrument in the wind section. Try that with Andrex Aloe Vera paper and you will emit not a note, you will, however, have a mouthful of pulp.

But there is nothing to be gained from harking back to a golden age when a trip to the unlit outside privy on a wet night in December was a character-building adventure, and when lavatory paper of any kind was a luxury. Pointless, too, to lament the passing of a generation of hardened autodidacts whose learning was found hanging on a rusty nail. How many youngsters who would not otherwise have had access to newspapers found the time and inclination to read them thanks to the absence of lavatory paper?

It is a curious irony that when every newspaper was worth reading, many were used also for bottom-wiping, and that today when most tabloids are fit only for bottom-wiping, they are also read. That’s progress for you.

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