Harwich for the continent. Sheffield for the incontinent !
Way back in the dark ages when I was responsible for carrying out anorectal function tests on patients with diarrhea and constipation at The Royal Hallamshire Hospital, the hospital secretaries, with whom we shared a coffee room, wrote me a letter of complaint. I responded by turning it into a poem, which might seem to epitomise the taboo surrounding defaecation.
Please don’t talk about bums
If you want to be chums
And share our coffee room
It’s not that we’re thick
We’re just a bit sick
Of impaired defaecation
And bad constipation
And talk about bums isn’t fun
Try to make it a rule
Not to speak about stool
When we’re eating our chocolate cake.
What you find amusing
Is not of our choosing
And we’d rather let pass
Your obsession with stool makes us ill.
Now we do feel queer
When you talk diarrhoea
And we’re trying to drink our soup.
Such crude conversations
Quite upset our digestions.
So please do not tease us
With poorly formed faeces
Don’t discuss diarrhoea in here.
If you don’t want to pain us,
please, don’t mention the anus.
It’s a part of our bodies we’d rather ignore.
The stomach or spleen
Are not quite so obscene.
And even the liver
Would not make us quiver
But let’s leave the anus behind us.
It’s most awfully rude
When we’re eatlng our food
To talk about things ‘down below’
And the anal canal is so awf’ly banal.
We just crave education
From bright conversation.
Can’t you please change the subject today?
x x x
Over half of the UK population avoid talking about faeces or defaecation, according to a recent survey commissioned by Yakult UK and ‘Love Your Gut’ for Gut Week 2015, My brother and I used to talk about big jobs, but nowadays many families and even the commissioners of this study prefer to use the euphemism poo for the big job done on the loo. The mediaeval ‘crap’ or ‘shit’ are more frequently employed as expletives these days. Women, according to the survey, are more willing to discuss their bowel problems than men, but surprisingly few people know about their spouses bowel habits.
The reality of faeces is ‘taboo’, orginally a polynesian word (tabu),brought back to England in 1777 by Captain James Cook to describe something sacred and forbidden, prohibited for general use. ‘Not one of them would sit down, or eat a bit of any thing, On expressing my surprise at this, they said, they were all taboo.’
Poo, according to ‘Love Your Gut’, is the most avoided topic of conversion at meal times (79%), much more so than sex (53%), politics (20%) or religion (23%). But why should the act or products of defaecation be taboo? Is it that they have connotations of dirt and mental instability? Although some French chefs are said to add a tiny bit of merde to flavour stews, coprophagia is only really practiced by rabbits and mad people.
Or is it that defaecation, like sex, is an act conducted in privacy when we are at our most vulnerable? We don’t wish to show or know about it. We all wish to be recognized for our human qualities: intelligence, kindness, courage, creative ability, leadership, not for the animal functions that demean us. As a teenager, I was shocked to learn that Her Majesty The Queen defaecated; I had always assumed she had no intestinal organs and was just royal blue inside. It seems we must all retain the mystique that somehow we are above all of that. In my early twenties, I led a medical expedition to Ethiopia where we collected samples of faeces to look for the prevalence of the parasite, Schistosoma mansoni. The tribes-people presented their samples wrapped in a maize leaf. They did not want us to recognize that these samples were evauated from their bodies, because that meant that, like taking their photograph, we would possess their soul.
But if we have a problem with defaecation, we have to talk about it. How can we get advice unless we reveal what is happening? We just have to choose the method and the time. Perhaps it is easier to post a question on line or send an anonymous email. Perhaps people can talk to a nurse rather than a doctor. Ladies in high rank in ancient China would never let physicians examine them. They would indicate the part of the body that hurt on little white porcelain figurines.
These days, the internet has made it easier to share knowledge and can dispel fear if used with discrimination. So don’t be too inhibited by the taboo. Just get the context right. You may not want to talk about poo at the meal or coffee table, but your doctor’s surgery is an appropriate place. Use the internet to find out what is abnormal and gather the information your doctor or nurse will need to know in order to advise you: how often, how painful, the consistency, colour, presence of blood, mucus. Information is power, it gives you control and allows you to get the help you need.