Plumbing the depths

One of my children and her partner have recently had the dubious pleasure of having their bathroom remodelled. Their travails have reminded me of my own experiences of the plumbing fraternity over the years and they have not all been happy ones. In fact, some of them have driven me around the bend!

While you get over that terrible joke, let me tell you that my father was a plumber – a true and upright man who worked at union rates because he thought that was an appropriate thing to do. As an example, he reluctantly answered a call for help, and, using me as a plumber’s mate, set to work on a neighbour’s frozen pipes one Boxing Day at time and a half union rates because it was a Bank Holiday.  Not exactly exploitative or even entrepreneurial. A far cry from today’s Jack the Lads that were so well described in Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney sketches years later or the sadly stereotypical, much maligned, Polish plumbers of today.

Our dad was a contract plumber who worked for the same employer, based in Streatham, South London, for all of his working life. I recall him coming home from exciting jobs like working in Pascall’s Mitcham sweet factory with bags of misshapen boiled sweets and his obvious delight when explaining to us the wonders of some new things called Wimpy Bars that his firm were working on in Swindon, probably in 1960. Those were the days!

So, as a fairly young lad, I got to know my arse from my elbow, and from my tee (joints that is). I could almost wipe a lead joint with a moleskin pad without burning my hands off. I knew what to do with hemp or horsehair and was thoroughly at home with Boss White too.

Incidentally, it may surprise some of you to know that plumbers knew all about olives long before they touched the unsophisticated palates of south London. They were, and still are, copper or brass rings that make compression joints work and not something to savour with your Campari and tonic! They have even been known to stand-in for wedding rings when needs be. Puts a whole new meaning on having green fingers!

However, turning back to the plumber’s paraphernalia, I particularly loved it when the paraffin-powered blow lamp flared-out and sent a jet of flame umpteen feet across space. Exciting stuff!

In later years, as a customer, I remember a very nice Greek guy in London trying all day to put some bends in a copper cold water feed pipe for a washing machine and in the end, he gave up. His boss came around, salvaged what he could of the ruined lengths of pipe and finished the job in less than an hour. I can only imagine what the first bloke got for his trouble, but I guess it wasn’t a copper-bottomed reference.

However, my troubles with the plumbing fraternity only really started when we moved to the north. We were doing up a big house in Dewsbury and boy did we pick a duff plumber there! He installed an Ideal boiler that was anything but ideal. It never worked properly even though it was almost totally replaced in stages under repeated guarantee callouts.

But Mark, for that was his name, regarded every job as really difficult. You know the sort of thing. “You want a Radiator there?”, followed by a prolonged intake of breath through the teeth. In fairness I guess he was right, because everything he did always was a problem……eventually.

In the end we fell out and he bad-mouthed us to the builder we had working for us who was only too happy to provide his own plumber.

That was how we met Malcolm…he was a lovely chap, but his work was not uneventful either. He finished our brand-new bathroom one Friday afternoon and all was well that night, until we emptied the bath…. right through the ceiling of our newly refurbished and freshly decorated kitchen below. That took a bit of sorting out!

A year or so later we bought one of those cast stone faces with its tongue poking out that reminded us of Malcolm. We hung it in the bathroom at the time and still have it years later. In case you were wondering, that’s him up at the top.

Then we moved to Hebden and had a load more stuff to do – we still hadn’t learnt how to buy a house to move into rather than a “Project” to camp out in and work on. This plumber, Steve, seemed reasonably competent, if a bit too keen on short cuts. So we ended up with hot and cold taps on the wrong sides, lots of untidy piping, too much visible pipework, but it worked……..For a while.

However, in the early hours of one bitterly cold morning, when the wind was blowing a gale, and the snow was drifting the way it does up here in the Pennines, we were awakened by the sound of running water – running down the interior plasterwork that was. My daughter and I high-tailed it to the top of the house where a connection had come undone and icy cold mains pressure water was jetting at whoever opened the cupboard door under the sink. It didn’t take too long to get my T-shirt and boxers pretty wet while I was struggling to turn the in-line valve off – without much luck I might add.

God! It was cold!

My wife was trying to turn the stopcock in the kitchen off, but the old lead pipes seemed more inclined to give up the ghost than allow us to stem the flow of water.

Nothing for it but to go outside and turn the water off to the house. Shouldn’t be a problem. I had the right tool. Trouble was it was snowing and drifting, and I couldn’t find the hydrant. By this time, I was pretty cold – still in boxers, soaked through, covered in snow and thinking of moving to Hypothermia.

Still, we got it all under control in the end, but my teeth had booked their very own place among the chattering classes.

We had at least a couple of weeks respite before the taps started rotating when we tried to turn them on, but we quickly adjusted to that. Then, a little later, a radiator just fell off the wall during the night! Evidence of more excellent effort by our denizen of wet work.

However, things seem to have looked up for us since we moved to our present place – touch brass.

We had a problem with our shower and our plumber turned up, as arranged, at 7.30 am, swapped out a shower unit and was gone in no time. Excellent service! Maybe the world of water is beginning run the way the Romans wanted at last. it’s only taken a couple of thousand years.

Even my daughter’s bathroom is fully functioning and does more than just look great these days.

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