No amount of Latin verbs can substitute for a practical education in the basics of boiler repair

I blame Reginald Prentice. At some time, somewhere, somehow during my education shouldn’t I have learned an alternative to “knowing a man who can”?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Can there be a more depressing eight words in the English language than “sorry mate, I’ve got to condemn your boiler”? Ok, perhaps it’s not quite up there with the “three Ds”: death, divorce and debt – although the third of these is an inevitable consequence of hearing them. So, just imagine that you’ve heard these words from the emergency callout boiler man and then, just imagine that, with no hot water, you’ve gone around to your Ma’s for a shower and that said shower refuses to turn on and then stubbornly declines to turn off again once you eventually force it on, no matter how much WD40 you spray about. Then just say you have to call out and pay for an emergency plumber at her house, and then dash back to your own home to be there, and pay for, the emergency boiler man. Well, welcome to my weekend. WHO CAN I BLAME?

Let’s start with Margaret Thatcher and Reginald Prentice, education secretaries immediately before I started senior school. Then Fred Mulley, Shirley Williams, Mark Carlisle and Sir Keith Joseph, who successively held the job while I was learning Latin verbs, the value of Pi and whether King Lear was a man “more sinned against than sinning”.

Sure, the last of these may have had a tiny, contributory factor towards a 25-year career in journalism and my ability to get paid to write this column in order to pass the money on to emergency repair men simultaneously all over London but, at some time, somewhere, somehow, shouldn’t I have learned an alternative to “knowing a man who can”? Okay, perhaps not how to install an entire boiler, but maybe just enough to know what a washer does, or drill holes in a wall so that I could put up the mirror in the girls’ bedroom rather than staring at it forlornly in its box, knowing full well that I will eventually “call someone”. Be brave, you say. Ha! Where does that get you? Cutting through the outdoor lighting’s electric cable in the mistaken belief it was a bamboo root, or killing half the newly-brown lawn in a misguided attempt to fill in a few bare patches, that’s where. End result? Even more cash to the men (and women) who can.

That’s not to mention yet another blow to what little masculine pride I have left after an entire adult life of not being able to do anything remotely practical. All this, because I did Latin, not woodwork or metalwork, three decades ago? Well, how did I know back then you would need an engineering degree to put together an Ikea flatpack? Caput inter nubila!