Adventures in home plumbing (part one)

If you too, gentle reader, are of a certain age, you’ll look back on your early and wild years and have the occasional palpitation. What on earth was I doing, you’ll say to yourself, with that haircut? Why was I listening to, dancing to, or, worse yet, playing, that bloody awful music? Why on earth did I think it was a good idea to go ‘once across the optics’ in that pub?

I have most of the above regrets, and more, and some of them probably ought to feature on future blogs in a cathartic and catholic outpouring of guilt before I drift into the forgetfulness that will make me shake my head at the younger generation, what with their ridiculous beards, terribly derivative music and binge drinking….but in the meantime, the things that wake me up from a cold regretful sleep most often, are the dreadful memories of when DIY went wrong.

Like most blokes in their twenties, I guess I expected to be able to do most things, reasonably competently. This arrogance was partly based on seeing people who didn’t seem to have any real skills fleece me for what seemed like straightforward joining together of cables or pipes or bricks or plasterboard. So when the opportunity presented itself to sort out DIY type activities myself – well, how hard could it possibly be?

To set the scene, me and Mrs E got married in May 1990, and we were soon looking for our dream cottage. Personally I based the specification on the middle eight part of Fats Waller’s ‘My Very Good Friend’, and I pretty much skipped around from estate agent to estate agent singing along:

My very good friend the milkman says
That I’ve been losing too much sleep
He doesn’t like the hours I keep
He suggests that you should marry me.

My very good friend the mailman says
That it would make his burden less
If we could share the same address
And he suggests that you should marry me.

Then there’s a very friendly fellow,
Who prints all the latest real estate news,
And every day he sends me blueprints,
Of cottages with country views.

My very good friends and neighbours too
They’ve been watching little things I do
And they believe that I love you
So I suggest that you should marry me.

I genuinely did go round humming that tune, and this may have diverted my attention away from some of the Madchester nonsense that was flying around at the time, but I don’t think that was necessarily a bad thing in the long term. And so, eventually, a very friendly fellow sent on a blueprint of a cottage with a country view, which we decided was perfect. It was perfect in a hundred ways, and we looked forward to growing up a bit in the country. At which point the story would ideally have a quick and happy ending, had we not got to the point where we sold up, put everything into boxes, booked the removal lorry, and promptly got gazumped. Younger readers may not be familiar with this term, but in the early 90’s it was all the rage. You’d find a property, make an offer, have it accepted, stick the ‘sold’ sign up, get the solicitors to talk to each other briefly, then just as you’d loaded up the van, some toerag would come along, and offer a bit more money, and the deal was off. Remember this was very early on in our marriage, and I discovered quite quickly that the woman I had married had something of a temper on her, which she was able to accompany with the sort of language which would make a docker blush.

Anyway, we had to buy a house, pretty quickly, and so we had to tour several more friendly fellows, with properties for sale that were a bit less ‘country views’ and a bit more ‘available now’. I found something fairly quickly one lunch hour, and had to convince my foul-mouthed partner. (It took her about 18 months to calm down, and 25 years later, if you’re ever interested in provoking a real life Pavlovian response, just ask and I’ll write down the name of our original vendor. Read it out to her, and you’ll hear the c-word repeated at increased volume for several minutes.)

“It’s in the city, not the country. And it’s a bit of a mess, it’s had students living in it. And there’s no parking. But it’s empty, quite cheap, and I reckon I could do it up in a couple of months.”

I think I may have caught her off guard (she was on long nursing shifts, and was probably struggling with outbursts of Tourette’s syndrome), but she said yes. So we moved in, and the prospect of a few months of mild discomfort went into implementation mode. Except of course, it wasn’t going to be a couple of months after all. The whole place needed gutting. The roof had to come off. The ceilings came down, and when we didn’t think they needed to come down, they collapsed anyway. All the plaster had to come off the walls, and we had to rip out the kitchen, bathroom, heating and electrics. Every bit of cash we had went into rebuilding, and every bit of spare time we spent in very fetching boiler suits, filling skips up with crap, digging out floors, sealing walls, clearing up…you know the sort of thing. It kind of lost its novelty after the first week, and unfortunately we got to about 12 months in and we were about half way done. I can remember my wife coming home from a shift on Christmas day, seeing my legs sticking out from under the kitchen sink while trying to perform a very tricky plumbing manoeuvre, and bursting into tears. Try writing a comic verse about that one, Waller.

And all the time, things kept going wrong, and a pattern emerged that has stood me well for the following years, and is best described by the following graph:

DIY graph

Let us consider this graph with the example of a simple DIY task. It’s Sunday afternoon, all of your other weekend tasks are neatly ticked off and there is a brief window of opportunity before the evening’s first gin. Your wife mentions that it might be helpful to hang up the picture of the dog that she’s wanted on the wall for a couple of months now. Briefly, you might think it was a bit daft to need to be reminded of a what a dog on a walk looks like when it’s witnessed fully live at least twice a day, but in the interest of harmony, you decide not to go down that route. A spot on the wall not otherwise occupied by pictures of the dog on former walks is selected. You size up the situation and conclude that a hole must be drilled. This decision point takes us to stage one.

Out to the shed, and retrieve the necessary tools – drill, extension cable, masonry bit, pencil, rawlplug, screw, plus spare screw to replace the first one, which will be lost, and screwdriver. You enlist an unwilling young assistant to hold a dustpan underneath the drilling site. Starting to drill takes us to stage two of the delivery. Partway through the drilling procedure, the calamity happens. In drilling holes, this may be a massive amount of plaster flying off for no apparent reason. It might be hitting a comedy brick, made out of vulcanite, which causes the drill to glow red with heat, or it may be a completion of a hole, then a pushing in of the rawlplug, only to find that it won’t actually go all the way in, and is cleverly designed so it won’t come out either.

Whatever happens, there will be a calamity, and this is where you have a choice. Option one is to seek professional help, in the form of Someone Who Knows What They’re Doing, or Someone Who Can Sell You A Solution. This is an absolute must if you’ve screwed up a plumbing or electrical task. Unfortunately you didn’t think this through when you started your work on Sunday afternoon. Option two is to bodge. The art of bodging is particularly useful on a Sunday afternoon, especially if you are planning to reach the gin bottle before 10pm. So, returning to the task in hand, you choose another nearby spot to drill, and having successfully managed to get a fixing in place, survey the collateral damage. This is stage three. Getting to stage four, in which your enthusiasm for the task in hand drops yet lower, requires you to nip out to the shed again, locate the polyfilla, undergo what builders call the process of ‘making good’, sand down, find some paint to cover your tracks, put all your stuff away and clear up, swear your unwilling young assistant to secrecy, and hang the picture, thus also hiding the bodged calamity.

In part two of this blog I’ll give you some real life examples of slightly more significant DIY calamities, which still wake me up of a night. Until then, be careful out there with the hammer x


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