Cleanliness & Godliness: A Further Metamorphosis

by Reginald Reynolds

Rating: ★★★★★

From the title you might perhaps be apprehensive of a dull, moralising book in which some pompous religious stand-in for your mother reminds you to wash your hands. Nothing could be further from the mark. Reynolds is without a doubt one of the most entertaining non-fiction writers I have encountered, and he writes a toweringly witty book that dazzles you with irreverent trivia even as it delivers pointed societal criticism. This I had some expectation of, as I come to this book not through any pressing interest in the sanitary arts, but drawn hither by Reynold's name from his similarly exuberant survey on the topic of beards. Even prepared, I was overwhelmed by the man's charm.

This is 'much more than you wanted to know' on the subject of the "necessary-house", "cloakroom" or "garderobe", but constructed with a keen eye for the most amusing, most surprising stories. Though not beyond integrating the best of toilet humour as scrawled upon the walls and passed along in sotto-voce stories, Reynolds also wields a classical education, many learned friends, and fantastically broad reading, including up-to-date (in 1942) scientific literature. The results speak for themselves, in page after page of fascinating asides.

On sound dietary advice:

"Among these Moors there were many famous physicians, and of these Ibn Zohr was the most famous. This Ibn Zohr was a greedy eater of green figs, and it is written that on a certain occasion his brother physician, Al Far, reproached his greed, saying that so many figs would cause an abscess in his stomach. But Ibn Zohr answered that Al Far, through abstaining from figs, would die of fever and constipation. And how wise these physicians were may be known from the fact that Ibn Zohr died of an abscess and Al Far of fever and constipation, each justifying the other."

On the business of waste:

"In a report on China, done out of Italian into English by one Richard Willes, you will find these words: Here (he says) be sold the voidings of close stools, although there wanteth not the dung of beasts, and the excrements of man are good merchandise throughout all China. The dung farmers seek in every street by exchange to buy this dirty ware for herbs and wood. The custom is very good for keeping the city clean. How good it was for other purposes also we have yet to discuss; but I may mention here that this custom of the Chinese still obtains; and that commercial gentleman who was sent to Cathay by a company of merchants engaged in the sale of chemical fertilisers, found that for this reason he could do no business. Insomuch that when he received an urgent request for information, after six months of silence, he was constrained to cable to his employers that he had 400,000,000 competitors."

Of Russian progress:

"It is astonishing to learn from the Cambridge Modern History that in the year 1706 Peter the Great appointed Sanitary Inspectors in Moscow, one for every ten houses, and that in the same year the first modern hospital was built by the River Yanza, with a medical training school. This is strange news indeed, for I know of only two opinions regarding Russia: the present Russian and Communist opinion that civilisation began in the year 1917, and the opinion of most Englishmen and Americans, that Russians were blackguards until the year 1941, when they changed their morals, manners and habits in a single night"

Toilet habits as racial categorisation aides:

"Concerning the Nastiness of Natives and the Filthiness of Foreigners As to my title, I suppose some pedantic person might assume that I denote by the term 'foreigners' those who live outside this island and that by 'natives' I mean those who live in my native land. Therefore let it be clearly understood that I use these terms not as a mere philologist but as an Englishman, who divides all who are not English into two categories; those with white skins, called foreigners, and those with dark skins, called natives. Did I not read in that most erudite article by Mr. Lamb, in the Architect's Journal, of the Eastern pedestal closet, described by that writer (with an excellent illustration) as 'really the most rational of all', that this most excellent of contrivances was 'only suitable for native races'? Manifestly, then, we cannot be natives, since we are not sufficiently rational to use a closet where, as Mr. Lamb explains, it is necessary to adopt a squatting position for use. This will provide us with a second of supplementary definition of 'native': one who is sufficiently rational to squat, which is the correct scientific position; but this we will discuss at greater length in a later chapter."

On the proper reading of Latin poets:

"Another connoisseur of the closet was the celebrated Lord Chesterfield, as he reveals himself in a letter to his son dated December 11th 1747 (Old Style). He mentions here a gentleman who profited even from the time which (he says) the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house. He he read the Latin poets in cheap editions, and tearing off what he had read, sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina. Lord Chesterfield commends this as an example to be followed; for, says he, it is better than only doing what you cannot help doing at these moments, and it will make any book which you shall read in that manner very present in your mind---a very singular system of mnemonics, as a friend of mine observes. His Lordship considered poetry the most appropriate reading for such occasions, omitting only Virgil."

Of toiletry taboos:

"The confusion of these two forms of taboo is illustrated in an example supplied by Monsieur Guyon, though he does not comment upon this confusion, which is the true explanation of his case. For he says that few persons could eat jam from a chamber-pot without nausea, even though the pot were quite new and had that moment come from the factory. But this is an example of the association of ideas, in which an object commonly regarded as both shameful and unclean can only with difficulty be considered as clean because it is regarded in all circumstances as shameful, the two conceptions having become inseparable. Such a case I remember to have read in an old journal of the last century, where a writer described a reception given to European guests by an Indian rajah. The Prince, having provided himself with a liberal supply of ware from English firms, offered to his guests quantities of milk which he caused to be placed upon the table in vessels designed for quite another purpose. And observing that the milk remained untouched he continued to embarrass his guests by asking them to partake of it, saying that he was assured that is was an acceptable drink (for as a strict Moslem he could have no wine nor spirits to offer them), so that the whole company was torn between laughter and embarrassment."

Of the costs of toiletry art:

"Moses, who was not suffered to behold Jehovah face to face, was permitted to look upon his hinder parts, which we should consider today an outrage, though it was evidently not so intended. This is astonishing among the Hebrews, but among the paynims the shame of the body was little known. Indeed, they carried this shamelessness in some instances to the point of finding among those functions which we most despise the occasion of decorative ingenuity. For I have in mind those high-born Roman ladies of the later days, and the more costly courtesans who imitated them, of whom it is said that they consumed turpentine in order to give an odour of roses to their urine. And this they did for the sake of art, as they understood it, even after it had been discovered that the result was a painful disease of the kidneys from which they would die within five years."

These are but a few of the passages I had to share, to do Reynolds proper service would stretch a review into republication. He skips merrily from treasure to treasure, only occasionally alluding to the fact that he is writing this irreverent, wide-ranging and learned book in the midst of the Blitz. As all around him fear for the war, fear the end of their world may be soon upon them, Reynolds mentions casually how he buried a man in his own cellar as a preface to describing the toilet seat he found in the wreckage of the poor sod's house. He scribbles with typical British moodiness about the British Library's Reading Room being closed, making it difficult for him to fully develop his subject (the daunting conclusion being that Reynolds summons all his many obscure references deployed in this book from memory). Aiming to describe a chamberpot of Louis XIV, he is frustrated to discover that the museum has buried all its exhibits as safeguard against a German invasion. His grumbling and snark and refusal to take anything too seriously are enough to fill you with a patriotic pride. Even amidst his direst warnings (on the need for nightsoil processes to refresh British earth), he cannot help but tweak the nose of the serious state official and their exhortations.

"There is, in the mysterious Service to which I belong, a curious anachronism which is called 'Being on the Gate'. This signifies that a person, such as myself at this present moment, shall always sit in a small hut at the entrance of the depot, by day and by night. And so it comes about that I am writing by the light of a Hurricane lamp at four in the morning in a place so completely blacked out (with the aid of a former mortuary blanket) that I could not conceivably see the gate, which does not (moreover) exist. Thus an imaginary gate is, in official imagination, surveyed; and though nothing hinders any person, authorised or otherwise, from walking in or out, or from using some other entry or exit, where these is not even an imaginary gate or an imaginary guardian, officialdom is satisfied. And you, reader, the brave defender, perchance, of a civilisation which is destroying itself and of a democracy which has never existed, may take this final reflection to bed with you when you close this book: that the fertility of this planet is running out through open sluices, as surely as a clock-spring unwinds itself until the clock stops, if none thinks to wind it. Stand, then, by the open sluices of fertility, or sit with me in the Dark Hut provided by Authority and say to yourself 'I am saving Civilisation from Destruction'. But when you open your stable door in the morning (if there is a door) you may discover that your horse, if there is a horse, was stolen before ever you mounted guard. For like my own metaphors, our labour and devotion, our principles and policies, end in the same confusion, writing their epitaphs in the macaronics of Babel."