The week in radio

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TRIBAL DRUMS thundered. Ululating dancers ululated and danced. "I get the impression," confided one onlooker, "that this World Plumbing Conference, being where it is, will be a bit different."

The venue for World Plumbing Council's fifth global knees-up was the South African golf and gambling resort, Sun City. Before you ask, Andy Watts from Somerset, chief executive of the Institute of Plumbing, secretary of the World Council and "a former plumber", gave us the obvious answer: "Why not Sun City?" The previous gathering, in London, had not, apparently, been as enthusiastically attended.

Strictly Conventional (BBC Radio 4, Wednesdays, 11am) was the second of four programmes in which presenter Quentin Cooper and producer Nigel Acheson mingle with different trades and professions at their annual get- togethers. (They debuted with dentists in Torquay). Cooper, whose dryness of humour does not have much opportunity to flourish in his regular role on radio science programmes, pinned on his delegate's badge and set off around Sun City with an eyebrow audibly cocked.

What followed was hilarious - much funnier than any of the stand-up comedian filler splattered lazily across Radio 4 schedules. Incidentally, am I alone in thinking that The Now Show (BBC Radio 4, Saturdays 6.15pm) has become Weekending 2?

As Cooper teased from delegates some sensational plumbing-related facts and impressions ("more and more ladies are coming into plumbing..."), I felt a growing sense of deja vu. Some years ago, waiting for a connecting flight to Haiti, I was delayed overnight in New York. The airline put me up at a snowbound airport hotel which happened to be hosting a Christmas convention for American anaesthetists. Or was it opticians? I can't be certain, as I was struggling with double vision by the time I went comatose over the bar.

On another occasion, I attended a convention of people called Kershaw, held in a swamp in Louisiana. "Hmm," muttered my Radio 1 rhythm-pal John Peel when, excitedly, I showed him the invitation. "If they were to hold a reunion of the Ravenscrofts [his real name], you can bet it would take place in Solihull, West Midlands."

"A warm welcome to our worldwide family of plumbing industry representatives," boomed the MC of the big-production opening session at Sun City. He acknowledged delegates from China, Turkey and Poland. Much applause was saved for Fiji's lone sanitation specialist, who took a little bow. South African power- balladeer, Vicky Sampson, then gripped the mike for a triumphal number that did not, alas, touch on cisterns and u-bends.

Cooper wandered off around the trade fair and into the persuasive presence of Helen Haas of Stunning Bathroom Fittings (South Africa). "Our toilet roll is designed for men," trilled Helen.

Now, as someone who goes through astonishing quantities of the stuff, I drew my chair closer to the radio.

"You don't have to squish that centre spring-loaded thing," Helen explained indelicately. "You can just slip it on. It can't fly off because it's got a head on the end. So men can change the toilet roll in our range." For a worrying moment I hadn't realised Helen was describing - a toilet roll holder.

The ballroom, decorated with fake giraffes, was given over to the presentation of technical papers and what is always referred to at these gatherings as a "keynote address". Murray Thomas speaking on "Australia's Water Efficiency" reminded us that only 1 per cent of the world's water is available for human consumption. The rest is frozen or salty.

Here, Cooper's scientific instincts were put to advantage. In a trice, he whisked Thomas up to his room to give his bathroom plumbing the efficiency once-over.

Sun City is itself a bit of a plumbing job. Cooper was at first indignant that in one of the driest parts of a country, less than half of whose population has access to clean drinking water, Sun City boasts the extravagances of a synthetic sea (The Valley of the Waves!), a virtual rain forest and golf courses drenched by sprinklers. The resort's chief engineer was soon on hand to point out new efficiencies. By treatment and recycling, Sun City has reduced its water consumption from 9 million litres per day to 6 million.

The romantic view of plumbing came from outside the profession. John, a Sun City waiter, told Cooper: "I want to be a plumber because you can do beautiful things for people." John is, most likely, one of those South Africans for whom clean water or a flush toilet would indeed be a beautiful thing.

Let's hope he will be among the South African delegation that joins the worldwide family of plumbing industry reps for the sixth World Plumbing Conference, to be held in Berlin in 2002. (It is not, regrettably, an annual event. You can have too much of a good thing).

Next Wednesday Quentin Cooper will be joining Britain's fire-fighters as they let their hair down in Harrogate.

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