Social attitudes and urinating plumbers

Perhaps for mucky, Freudian reasons we tend to be fascinated by the plumbing business
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The Independent Online

The case of the incontinent plumber has caught the public imagination this week. In a rather dashing sting operation, some Trading Standards officers from Surrey have secretly filmed a number of tradesmen at work and have found that a quarter were involved in something dodgy.

The case of the incontinent plumber has caught the public imagination this week. In a rather dashing sting operation, some Trading Standards officers from Surrey have secretly filmed a number of tradesmen at work and have found that a quarter were involved in something dodgy. There were cases of massive over-charging, fake documentation and dangerous work. One engineer was filmed looking for a gas leak with a naked flame.

The plumber in question had apparently been caught short and had relieved himself into a vase. He then poured the contents into the family water tank.

Perhaps for mucky, Freudian reasons, we tend to be fascinated by the plumbing business. A family gathering in the country a few years back was made particularly memorable by the moment when a blocked pipe between the house and the septic tank caused a foul bubbling to issue from the earth in a scene that might have come out of an old horror movie.

The local plumber - retired but happy to help out at such times - was called out. As, puffing on his pipe (he was a genuinely happy plumber), he went about his work with plungers and brushes, the family gathered around the window to watch. It was a satisfying, oddly purging experience.

Plumbing has moved on since then, and has come to represent an unattractive aspect of our national life. Such is the boom in house-building that the Construction Industry Training Board has recently claimed that, just to keep pace with demand between now and 2006, the country will need 6,000 more plumbers (as well as 7,400 more electricians and 6,100 more bricklayers). There has been a huge increase in applicants for vocational courses and wages have soared - a master plumber can expect to earn around £70,000 a year.

There is even talk of people moving out of the office and into freelance manual trading. It has been said that plumbing and electrics could be for the early 21st century what accountancy was for the 1970s.

So it is an enduring mystery that, while the opportunities and rewards of this and other work in the building business increase, the standards and scrupulousness of those who work in them has gone into a rapid decline.

Anyone whose boiler has packed up will know that the chance of finding a reliable plumber who will actually turn up, do the work and not cheat you is remote; normally the choice is between incompetence and an absurdly inflated bill.

Why do these people behave so much worse than they used to? It is not a snobbish question. The antics of the urinating plumber are so gratuitously yobbish that one is inclined to conclude that a sort of rage, a class resentment, must have been at work.

Perhaps it is justified, for social attitudes towards certain blue-collar workers have, as the rest of society has become more middle-class, remained curiously entrenched. Watch one of the many TV shows, following the progress of those unlikely contemporary heroes, property developers, and you will notice that, while the designer or owner speak to camera, the blokes actually doing the work, much of which is extremely skilled, are rarely given credit.

There is no obvious reason why a low-grade architect plying his trade in a planning office should have a more established social position than, say, an accomplished joiner or bricklayer, nor why a plumber should be less welcome at a smart dinner party than a white-collar type who does less socially useful work - an estate agent, for example, or a publicist.

The result of this lack of kudos seems to be that freelance traders often feel free to treat those who pay them with a certain contempt and that the most uncompromisingly slack and bloody-minded are plumbers. My own experience on the front line, during the building of a house, has suggested that even the better plumbers are not over-burdened by a sense of obligation to their customer. A radiator was fitted upside down, taps put in precisely the wrong place, jagged holes for pipes banged through floorboards with a chisel. It was a puzzling business for here was a man at the top of his profession, doing a significant and profitable job. No-one can have offended him for, such is the power of the plumber, that the builder in charge had given strict instructions that, whatever the provocation, the plumber should be addressed with deference and respect.

To help improve their ways, it is time to change attitudes towards those who work on building sites or visit us when the boiler breaks. TV reality shows should follow their progress rather than giving them jokey walk-on parts. They should be accepted as respected contributors to a property-crazed community. They should have governing bodies that have the power to strike them off at the slightest hint of crookedness or urinary inappropriateness. And now they are so well paid, perhaps their vocational classes might attract some form of top-up fee.

Terblacker@aol.com

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