One thing I’ve learned is that we do not all see life and situations the same way and few would contemplate taking on the day job of Neville Night Soil.
There was a time, hard for today’s youth to contemplate, when not all houses were connected to the local sewage system. This was often because there was no local sewage system.
As a child of the fifties, I was spared the joys of the outhouse, the thunder box, that icon of the Australian back yard which also served as the home library, because my father had engaged the Government Housing Commission to build us a modest home set upon timber stumps, just high enough for kids to find plenty of play room in the dirt.
Not only was this fine structure brand spankin new, it came with its very own flushing toilet, albeit strategically located in the very rearmost corner of the palace, down the back stairs, past the laundry, but still technically under the same roof.
All this new technology was a bit revolutionary for the time and the cause of some consternation for my grandparents could not conceive of any reason for having a toilet near one’s habitable areas.
While we enjoyed the privilege of flushing, on the occasional visit to farm-living relatives, I received basic tuition on the procedures relating to the use and etiquette of using the thunder box and the twisted wire that served to hold the dismembered pages of the local rag.
Generally, one had to push aside, with one’s bare feet for daytime shoes were never considered judicious use of a precious resource, the goat nobbles, as goats seemed to have an affinity for the outhouse, a place to retreat from the rain or perhaps they too enjoyed the serenity of a special place to contemplate the mysteries of the universe. Maybe they just thought it was funny but swinging wide the door, I was never sure who got the greater surprise.
Armed with this knowledge of the aforesaid thunder box, the stories of the Night Soil collector resonated with me. The idea of a man coming into the yard at 4am, opening the little door on the back of the outhouse, pulling out the can and replacing it with an empty one, did not seem unusual. I’m sure his patting the cheeks of anyone caught in process were exaggerated. Surely.
It is claimed that Neville was proud of his ability to load his truck with many tons of night soil, so much that his truck springs were on occasions, down to the axles. In order to achieve this, Neville would top load more and more cans until his old truck was staggering under the weight. A fine achievement, however this did make it somewhat of a handful when cornering.
Work began early for Neville. In winter it would take some time for him to work up a sweat and he developed the habit of hanging his coat on the back with the cans.
As you can probably guess, fate caught up with Neville one morning, fully loaded, running late, the streets already busy with early risers and others getting off to work. Neville took the corner just a little too fast and tipped his entire load into the middle of the roadway.
Neville, athletic and strong, pulled himself from the passenger-side window of the truck, which by now was lying on its side, and leapt to the ground. To the horror of the onlookers, he immediately waded into the slosh with a determined grimace upon his dial.
Passers-by called. out, “Neville, mate, what you doing?” His disgruntled reply was “I left my bloody coat on the back”.
When someone pointed out he could always buy another coat, he replied “yeah, but my lunch is in the pocket”. As I said at the beginning, we all see life situations from our own perspective.
Which brings me neatly to some advice that was bandied about in the same era.
It is still possible to catch the tram in some cities, Melbourne Australia, San Francisco and others. In the old days, long before electronic ticketing, one purchased a tram ticket from the conductor or later from dispensers at the tram stops.
The tickets were about 50 millimetres or 2 inches long and half as wide. It was not uncommon for city folk to have half a dozen old tram tickets floating about in pockets.
My father told me how, in the 1940’s and after the war, folk lore wisdom said you should always keep a used tram ticket in your pocket in case you got ‘caught short’.
In those days not all public toilets were kept to high standard so it was not uncommon for there to be a shortage of toilet paper. One could easily find themselves, ‘caught short’.
The idea was if you had a tram ticket in your pocket you could overcome the embarrassing and difficult problem of the paper shortage.
The method was as follows.
Take the ticket, which is approximately half the width of your palm and fold it in two making it now about one inch long. A second fold in the other direction brings it down to a quarter of the original size. One should now clasp the corner in your teeth and tear if off.
When the ticket is spread out, there is a hole in the middle about the size of your finger.
Roundabout now, most good folks anticipate what you are about to say and stop you right there, but for those of a more robust disposition, he would proceed with the instructions which I won’t go into here in any great detail. Suffice to say, after doing what’s needed to be done and the event brought to a satisfactory conclusion, a dexterous and strategic withdrawal of the finger in question would render it ‘clean’ in the sense that one can also pick up a turd by the clean end.
In conclusion, they said, the chewed off corner makes a handy finger nail cleaner.
I’m not sure if Neville ever used a tram ticket but I like to think he would have approved.
As it happens, a few years later I met Neville’s daughter in Townsville and this is her story.