Tuesday 6 May 2008

Living in the past

13st 10lb; just 1.0 unit of alcohol yesterday; 1,368; England, Dear England.

When I bought my house it comprised two semi-derelict cottages, each with a single Belfast sink in its scullery. There was hot water, supplied from rather unattractive 1930s coal-fired ranges in the kitchens, but no means of washing comprehensively other than filling a tin bath from the tap. There were earth closets outside. In fact, the only major modernization undertaken since the buildings were constructed in the early 1870s (I would guess, given that that was when the original Old Catholic family sold their ancestral estate to Protestant new money) was the installation of electricity on December 14, 1959. A date which I can record with such precision because an electrician with a sense of history, one Stuart Carlyle from Rothbury, took a big, thick pencil and recorded on one of the beams in the loft that he had that day installed lighting and power in the more easterly of the two houses. I expect they went out to Woolworth’s and bought some fairy lights for the Christmas tree by way of celebration.

Naturally I made a few changes before I moved into the premises in 1988, including the installation of two bathrooms complete with flushing lavatories. I asked my builder whether bidets might be a good idea and he stared at me in total astonishment.

“I mean I’ve never used one myself,” I sputtered defensively. “But I wondered whether they would add to the value of the house if I came to sell it?”

“This is Northumberland,” he said. “They’ve only just started using toilet paper. Bidets, yerbugger!”

So that was that.

The only slight snag is that the water supply has never been upgraded to cope with the new demands made upon it. It’s a private estate supply of untreated water from some spring on the nearby crags. It tastes delicious. Occasionally a man from the local authority calls and, somehow sensing that I might be a bit of an awkward customer, tells me that he has the legal right to take samples of the water for analysis. He always promises to let me know how the tests turn out, but never has. Maybe he doesn’t want to upset me.

There was a time once when the owner of the then village shop commented that I must be awfully sick of having to boil all my drinking water, as it turned out that all my neighbours had been doing for several days, since a number of dead rats were found in a holding tank. No-one had ever bothered to mention it to me. Though, as you can see, I am still alive.

From time to time the supply fails completely, and all that happens when I turn on a tap is that it belches. But the good news is the certainty that it will only ever happen when I am in a hurry to get somewhere and desperately want to feel fresh and smart when I arrive. Like this morning, for example, when I had one of my increasingly rare business meetings in Newcastle and was looking forward to a stimulating hot shower to put me in the mood. Bollocks, I thought, as I listened to the final echo of the eructating tap. I do not feel able to post precisely what I thought when I then discovered that the water had been cut off halfway through a cycle of my dishwasher, which was now displaying an “error message”.

Now I freely admit to being of such an anal cast of mind that I possess a filing cabinet packed with the owner’s handbooks for every electrical appliance I have ever owned in my life. Except, as it turned out, the one for the sodding dishwasher. Though after almost literally turning the house upside down, I did unearth an idiot’s guide containing extremely edited highlights from it. This told me that the error message was there solely to provide information for the after-sales service engineer, who was only “one call away”. Though not providing anything as useful as his phone number.

Luckily for my blood pressure, I had to leave at this point and drive at reckless speed to Newcastle in order to keep my appointment for a rather demanding meeting. A nice, relaxing interlude.

When I returned in the afternoon, feeling vaguely unclean, the water had come back on so it only remained to contact the service engineer. It was the work of but half an hour to unearth the number, listen to the inevitable multiple choice questionnaire and make the requisite choices on my telephone’s key pad. Then I spent an almost unbelievable amount of time listening to some crap music and a voice assuring me that my call was important to them, albeit not actually important enough for them to employ someone to answer it. I had the phone on hands-free, and after 40 minutes or so David the painter put his head round the door to say that he didn’t know what it was doing for me, but it was annoying the hell out of him. At about the same time, it occurred to me that I was dialling a premium rate 0870 number and that keeping idiots like me hanging onto it almost certainly constituted a fairly major profit centre in its own right. Perhaps there was no-one there at all. Or maybe they entered the most persistent callers into a prize draw and answered just one call at the end of the working day. Though only, of course, to say that they were terribly sorry that they were closing now, but would be back at eight in the morning.

I then had a brainwave and rang my friendly local electrician, who had done a cracking job of repairing a broken storage heater only a week or so ago. He admitted with regret that kitchen appliances were not his speciality, but said he could offer both good and bad news.

“The good news is that there is a bloke just up the road who knows more about Whirlpool dishwashers than anyone else on the planet.”

“Marvellous. And the bad news?”

“He retired on Saturday.”

He did give me the phone number of another organization in Morpeth, and assured me that they would sort me out. I got through immediately. To an answering machine. More than a week later (for I am writing this blog in serious arrears) they still haven’t rung me back. I don’t think that they can have grasped the potential profits to be made out of not providing a service, as the manufacturers have done so impressively.

After I had finished writing the press release on which I had gone to be briefed this morning, I carefully removed the half-washed plates, glasses and cutlery from the dishwasher, and washed and dried them by hand. Then, to relieve my feelings, I gave the machine a hefty kick. It immediately sprang back to life at precisely the point in its cycle where it had packed in when the water went off. This cheered me up no end.

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