Doctor on the house

The part is out there - somewhere. Jeff Howell explores the mysterious life of the plumber
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The Independent Online
You may think you have a problem with your builder's punctuality. Well, if it's any consolation, we builders have our own, more specific version of this problem - why do plumbers never turn up? For plumbers are the Romanies of the building industry - they travel the length and breadth of the land in their brightly painted vans, chock-full of mysterious bits and pieces - and nobody ever knows where they are, when they'll turn up next, or where they'll be tomorrow.

All right, I made up the "brightly painted" bit - most plumbers' vans are white. Ford Escorts usually. But the rest is true: plumbers are the eternal travellers of the building industry. A plumber will drive 30 miles to look at a leak and decide it needs a new washer/valve/pump/ diaphragm. But he won't fix it there and then. Oh no. He will drive 30 miles home again, and then make a special trip out the following Tuesday to do the job, after he has driven to the plumbers' merchants to get the special part. So the actual task of fixing the leak takes seven minutes, but there is 150 miles' travelling involved which, at 37p per mile, comes to... well, work it out for yourselves. Now you know why it always costs 80 quid when you call the plumber out.

Of course, plumbers do have some genuine reasons for not turning up. The "emergency call-out" is the most obvious. Burst pipes can wreak havoc in homes - we all know that - and the trusty plumber is duty-bound to respond to a genuine cry for help. Faults with central heating can also be "emergencies". So can blocked drains and overflowing overflows. And emergency call-outs command emergency call-out fees, and they can result in further work later on. But do plumbers really have to spend so much time driving? Why can't they be more efficient with their time, and carry a complete stock of spare parts? My theory is that plumbers actually prefer driving to working - it's the Romany thing again. And let's face it, if you had to spend your life crawling under sinks or fishing around in toilets, you too might think it better to travel than to arrive. Steve the plumber only ever works in London, but he drives 30,000 miles a year. Most of it in second gear. He gets through Escort gearboxes like you and I get through dental floss.

But perhaps the most noteworthy thing about plumbers is the ingenuity of their excuses. It will come as no surprise to you to hear that I once called a plumber on his mobile phone, and he answered - I swear this is true - from a cross-Channel ferry. When I had the temerity to inquire why he was swanning off to the Continent instead of connecting up the bidet at 23 Acacia Gardens, he said he was "going to get a part for the van". Of all the trades, plumbers have the largest number of plausible excuses at their disposal, and the least compunction about employing them, mercilessly, to give themselves a quiet life.

Over the years I have often thought that, if I had my time over again, I would be a plumber. They are the only participants in the building game who get more work as the weather gets worse. I called Steve the plumber the other evening, after 72 hours of torrential rain, and he answered the phone with the cry: "No, no, yes and maybe". So we know the answer. But what is the question?

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