Electricians are sparkies, carpenters chippies, but plumbers are just, well, plumbers. Why? Can it be respect?
Plumbum is Latin for lead and it was the plumber’s lead pipes that brought clean water to Rome and took soiled water away. Without plumbing, a city the size of Rome wasn’t possible. Without a city the size of Rome, the empire wasn’t possible. And without a Roman empire, you and I would be speaking a different language and obeying different laws. Plumbers created our world.
Superficially it’s an unappealing trade. Plumbers are forever on their knees, underneath things, down there with the rot and the rats. Or they’re plunging rods through stuff we don’t want to know about. Or they’re up in the roof space, bent double in the heat, taking a wrench to the cylinder while the householder prays below.
And yet, what tradesman is more vital than the plumber, more desperately summoned, more keenly awaited, more warmly welcomed on arrival? Chippies don’t save the day. Sparkies don’t ride to the rescue. Plumbers do. They are ruin-averters, catastrophe-stemmers, heroes of the faucet, Lancelots of the leak.
“How urgent is the problem,” asked the plumber when I rang him last week, “on a scale of one to ten?” It’s the question he has to ask a dozen times a day. And how often he must hear the customer scream of 11. How often he must have to mount his charger and set off straightway to right the world. For water is just so destructive. It shapes landscapes, brings down mountains. A house is nothing to water, is an appetiser.
We have an ambiguous relation with water. Millennia back our remotest ancestors crawled out from it and saw the possibilities of land and air. Gradually they lost their ability to live and breathe in water. The stuff became inimical, a threat, a thing to be feared. But the divorce was only partial. They still needed water, were still largely composed of it. They could go nowhere without it. They had to live near it.
We people have tried to domesticate water. Instead of going out to the stream we’ve brought the stream inside, channelled it into our houses to do what we want with it, then channelled it out again taking our grime and our leavings.
But we have never tamed the stuff. It is merely subdued, its nature unaltered. It’s the beast in the cage at the zoo, so good to gawp at, so very pleasing, but let it once break out from its cage and see how the panic spreads.
Water knows only one master and that’s gravity. All water is on its way to the sea. And it will get there in the end, every drop of it, and it doesn’t care how. The stuff in your house right now is itching to burst out and go downhill. You can’t take your eyes off it.
My problem was every plumbing problem - escaped water, water out of its cage, water on the lam. It had been collecting for a while under the kitchen sink. Not much of it but not much is more than enough. Not much is enough to rot skirtings, sprout fungi, turn medium density fibreboard into something swollen, sodden and sorry.
To start with I pretended it wasn’t happening, that it was just the splashing and overflow from cooking and cleaning. I mopped it up, shut the door on it, shut my mind to it. But I knew. In the end I picked up my only effective plumbing tool, the phone.
‘On a scale of one to ten…?’ said the plumber. I wanted to say nine, thought I ought to say two and said five. I’ll be there Monday morning, he said, and was, with overalls, tools and a smile. He took his boots off at the door. I had the kettle already boiled for propitiatory tea. He asked, as per script, for gumboot.
To peer under the sink he donned a headband that lit up like a halo. He diagnosed a dodgy tap and aged piping. After that it was heart surgery. He excised the vein-like piping, the faulty valve, and he made it all new, all sealed, all dry again and crowned it with a bright new tap. And thus he gave me back dominion over my little empire of dry, restored my illusion of control. Until the next time, the next rupture.
Then he went on his way on the plumber’s mission, to defy water, to hold it in check, to enable a world.