Straightforward? Pah!

In which The Author attempts some DIY

A couple of weeks ago there was a bit of a controversy in the British press, when it was announced that a new dictionary aimed at schoolchildren had omitted many time-honoured words from its pages. ‘Dandelion’, ‘fern’, ‘otter’, ‘nun’, ‘monk’ and ‘christen’, were replaced by ‘blog’ and voicemail’, among others. ‘Blackberry’ only survived by virtue of its rebirth as an electronic gadget, rather than an ingredient of tarts and jam.
One of the papers decided to run a reader competition, inviting suggestions for other words which could be happily discarded from a modern reference work. My nomination, after much consideration, is the word ‘straightforward’.
For a long time now, my brother’s mantra has been ‘Nothing’s ever straightforward.’ Whether he’s talking about something as ordinary as walking the dog, or something as extraordinary as trying to get the credit balance from his electricity account refunded, he comes up a series of obstacles which might have been placed deliberately in his path by the Goddess of Chaos. My mother and I have teased him about this on many occasions, thinking that he doth protest too much – but now we’re beginning to know how he feels.
Recently a friend of ours became seriously ill and it took my mother nearly five hours, spread over a series of half a dozen phone calls, to arrange a hospital appointment for him. In fact, over the past year or so, Mother has been introduced to my brother’s weird and wonderful world of unnecessary complications. At first I thought I was going to be exempt from the Goddess’s caprice. But today she found me – and how!
At first glance, replacing a set of taps on a wash handbasin seems like a straightforward task. You look at the DIY manuals and it’s easy. You turn off the water, drain down the system, unscrew the fittings, remove the old taps, fit the new taps, reconnect the pipework, turn the water back on – and Robert is your father’s brother.
That’s in the Matrix.
In the Real World, you turn off the water, drain down the system, unscrew the fittings, remove the old tap, put the new tap in place, find out that the tail of the new tap is about half an inch shorter than the old one, and reassemble everything because you haven’t got enough free play in the pipework.
I got to this stage about a year ago – and I had to make a last-minute dash to Wilkinson’s in Aberdare to buy a pack of brass olives before I could reassemble the joint. Then I had surgery on my shoulder, and all plans went on hold while I was recovering full mobility in my arm. In the meantime, I bought all the plastic push-fit components I needed to make a quick and easy change from the new tap to the existing pipework.
If you haven’t used push-fit plumbing before, it’s an extraordinary innovation – Plumb Crazy for adults. If you don’t remember this classic kids’ game, you had a load of plastic straws and weird bends, and the aim was to connect your tap to a central water tank, using all your pieces to make a surreal pipe route. Some guy must have been drunk one night, and started reminiscing with his mates about old kids’ games. During the conversation, they dreamed up the idea of a full-scale version suitable for domestic installations.
You can buy it in three bores, and there’s a huge variety of fittings to tackle just about any job. You need one pair of hands and the bare minimum of tools. It’s a bit more expensive than copper, but you save so much time it’s incredible. The guy who came up with it should get the Queen’s Award for Industry, and possibly a Nobel Prize as well.
Anyway, I sketched out an alternative layout using push-fit, intending to replace the taps when I had chance. The parts have been sitting in a drawer for six months or so, just waiting for their chance to shine. This afternoon, with a week off work and a clean bill of health from the surgeon, I tried again. The cold tap came off easily enough. I cut the copper pipe to length and built the new joint within about five minutes. I tested it under pressure and it was perfect. So far, so good.
Then I turned my attention to the hot tap. I dismantled the old fitting and cut the pipe at the same point. Then the Goddess of Chaos stuck her oar in. The hot tap is a complement of the cold tap. The fittings are identical. So why wouldn’t the bloody wrench fit on the backnut? It was close, but after several attempts I couldn’t get the backnut to move.
It was at this point that I spotted the flaw in my argument. I had no way of remaking the cut joint – and no way of sealing off the water. How many times have I browsed through the push-fit components in B&Q and stopped short of buying a stop end, convinced that I’ll never need to use it?
So today, at about 4.30 p.m., I found myself on the way to Pontypridd to buy a stop end, having sprayed the joint with WD-40 in the meantime. It would have time to soak in, at least.
Years ago, I wouldn’t have had to walk two hundred yards. We had two well-stocked and friendly shops in Trecynon, less than a hundred yards apart. Mansel and Miriam ran the hardware shop on the square (see ‘Not Open All Hours (Part 1)‘). Mansel was a qualified electrician of many years’ standing, and Miriam ran the shop while he was out working on people’s houses. If you needed an obscure part or even just some advice, you could visit the shop on a Saturday afternoon and Mansel would be there to talk you through the job.
Further down the hill, Colin and Pat owned Trecynon Handyman – a small but densely packed emporium which sold everything from single screws to whole doors and windows. Unless one had a really big job on, there was hardly any need to visit the out-of-town DIY store in Merthyr. I bet I could have got a single stop end from either of them. (Actually, thinking about it, I wouldn’t have needed to. Colin or Mansel would have suggested a useful tip to loosen the stubborn backnut and I’d have finished the job in five minutes flat.)
Now they’re both gone, swept away by the growth of the B&Q and Do-It-All warehouse phenomenon. There’s always Hirwaun Handyman, of course, but it’s Thursday and the entire village closes for a half-day. It wasn’t worth jumping on the bus and heading the other way, only to find that the shop was closed. (I don’t even know if he even stocks the push-fit range anyway.) As for the alternative – Travis Perkins, just down the hill in Robertstown, where I first picked up the push-fit catalogue, doesn’t even do plumbing bits and bobs anymore.
Focus (formerly Do-It-All) never ever seem to have the full range in stock. I think that was why they changed their name – it would have been more accurate to call them Do-Some-And-Have-To-Stop-Halfway-Through. For a while they compromised on Focus Do-It-All. A while ago, a friend and I realised that it was actually an instruction: ‘Focus! Do It All!’ – rather than running out of steam and leaving it half-finished …
It was B&Q or nowhere. £1.80 return on the bus, £2.60 return on the train, a walk in the rain from one end of Pontypridd to the other, and dicing with death crossing the road under the flyover – I could have stayed in the Welsh Harp and chatted to the boys, instead of even starting the job. Instead I ended up going on a twenty-five mile round trip for a bit of bloody plastic.
I’ve now got the stop end in place. The water’s back on, and I can have a bath in the morning at least. Needless to say, the parts were only sold in pairs – which means that the spare one will be sitting in the drawer for the rest of my life, crying out for something to do.
Yesterday, Mr Nicholas Greene of Richmond had a very brief letter printed in The Guardian, in their always entertaining Notes and Queries column: ‘Why is nothing ever simple?’
Now, Mr Greene, you know – it’s to stop the Goddess of Chaos from getting bored! My brother could have told you that a long time ago.
And here’s a note to the editors at Oxford University Press: Can we please remove the word ‘straightforward’ from the dictionary? It clearly has no relevance in the modern world.

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