COLUMN: March 21, 2013

HAVING wheezed through the worst of the winter, my boiler finally decided enough was enough, and collapsed, like Devon Loch, last Friday.

We discovered it was weeping, a steady drip running from somewhere in its mysterious innards. And soon, so was I. Because I knew it meant I was going to have to get a man in.

It is bad enough, as I have documented painfully recently, having to take an item of machinery to a man to have it fixed, but so much worse to have one visit.

On Saturday, I bit the bullet. I’d had to empty the water from the big red Celebrations tin twice during the night, and it was increasingly clear that the boiler was not going spontaneously to mend itself.

Also, while the heating was still chugging away, we had lost our hot water. I don’t mind cold water. It is very useful, for example, when preparing a glass of lemon squash, or if I need something to take with a headache pill.

What I do not like is unexpectedly cold water. I am not one of these people who wakes up early on Boxing Day and thinks: “Thank flip that’s all over. I’ve had enough of warmth, being able to feel my extremities, and having testicles on the outside. I’m jumping in the sea with a load of ugly men in Speedos.”

So when I was made keenly and suddenly aware of the lack of hot water while I was in the shower, I decided to take action.

I phoned a helpline, not for the first time in my life. A patient woman answered. I explained my difficulty. She asked me if there were any children in the house – perhaps she thought they would be more articulate. I knocked a few years off their ages and said yes, and that they would need hot water, this being the early 21st century.

She outlined a choice of tariffs – one exorbitant, and one which would attach myself and my descendants for a thousand years to some sort of direct debit arrangement. I chose the former and an engineer was dispatched.

He arrived and looked at the boiler. “Have you had this cover off?” he asked. “Sort of,” I said, looking at my shoes.

He had a good look. It wasn’t difficult to see what was wrong. A jet of water was spraying out of a broken something.

“Yes,” he said, “Your something is broken. It’s very common.”

“Great, so you can fix it?” I asked.

“I don’t have the part,” he explained.

“But it’s very common?” I said.

“Yes,” he replied.

“But you don’t have the part,” I reiterated.

“No. I’ll be back on Monday,” he said, and with a “Hi-yo, Silver, away,” he swept out of the building like The Lone Ranger, only a Lone Ranger whose guns were coming on Monday, so I’d have to hole up in the abandoned silver mine and fight off the bandits single-handed for the rest of the weekend.

Three hundred and twenty-five kettles later, the engineer returned with the part, and the house took on That Atmosphere. That Atmosphere is the thing I like least about getting a man in.

I found myself, as always, virtually confined to my living room, uncomfortable in my own presence, not wanting to switch on the television. I didn’t want to walk around my house in case he thought I was either spying on him or some sort of house-wandering weirdo.

It’s the quiet, I think. Even the hammering and drilling – drilling, why is he drilling?! – cannot dispel that strange uneasiness when a workman is doing something in one’s house.

And I really wanted to go to the toilet, but I knew if I went he would need something from me at that moment, and I’d have to explain that I was using the toilet, and there would be an awkward moment when I came down the stairs, because he’d known I’d been to the toilet in my own house.

Then he called me. “Can I use your toilet?” he said. “Erm, yes,” I said. I pointed up the stairs. “It’s that one, there, with the toilet in…” He bounded off and conducted his business with the door open. Then he came back downstairs, apparently without washing his hands.

I was incensed. This was my house and that was incredibly unhygienic and disrespectful. I had to make a stand. I had to take back my own house.

And, so, emboldened, I switched on the television. That showed him.

COLUMN: March 14, 2013

I SPEND quite a lot of time on buses, but I do actually own a driving licence and, indeed, a car. It is a black car, and there the similarities between myself and Batman end.

A couple of Sundays ago I went out visiting, as people used to do on Sundays before they let the shops open. I had left a couple of items in the boot and needed to retrieve them before the visit proper began.

I pressed the special catch, the lock clicked open, and I pulled open the boot, and, basically, it all came off in my hand. Specifically, the plastic moulding around the catch, which I had always used to get purchase on the boot in order to open it, sheared off with a sickening crunch.

It dangled limply, attached only by some electrical wires, and I sighed. I tried to reattach it but it was no use. And I sighed again. Because I knew what this meant.

I was going to have to explain to a professional how I had broken my car and I simply do not have the vocabulary.

I returned home after applying gaffer tape to the affected area and called the dealership where I bought my car.

A pleasant woman in the service department answered.

“BOO-HOO! CAR BROKE! MEND CAR!” I said. I am only partially paraphrasing.

“And what is the problem?” the woman asked, after I’d calmed down.

“The bit around the catch has sheared off,” I said. I knew even then that wasn’t going to be enough.

“I’m sorry, sir, can you explain in a little more detail?” she asked.

“There’s a sort of plastic moulding around the catch on the boot. And I pulled it off.” As I said it, I must confess there was a part of me that was impressed by my own strength.

The service woman seemed happy with my explanation, which was good as, as I have explained, I do not have the vocabulary. I am not a mechanic. I know what a car is, and I know how to drive one, but that is about my limit.

I suspect many mechanics go home at night, and switch on their TVs or generic tablet devices, and have no idea how they work, or how to program in C++, or how HTML 5 handles multimedia files.

And that causes them no difficulty in social situations because knowing how to fix cars is part of the officially sanctioned list of Man Skills, while knowing how to fix computers is not

I do think the list needs to be updated, in the same way that the basket of shopping in the Consumer Prices Index is frequently updated to remove, say, Dickie Valentine long-players, and replace them with, I don’t know, something on the internet. But in the meantime I am stuck.

I arrived at the service desk at the time of my appointment. I tried to hand over my service book and the wheel nuts which the woman on the phone had insisted I would need – which were in the boot, and which made me tear the moulding off again because I’d forgotten – though even I knew that you don’t have to take the wheels off to fix the boot.

The woman on the service desk chuckled at my nuts. “We won’t be needing them, sir,” she said. I ignored the opportunity for the obvious line and merely looked at her ruefully.

I sat in the waiting area, and watched as men in oily overalls – real men – did mechanical Man Things, while I did some non-manual work with a pen, and wished I were a real man.

Then I decided that there were many sorts of men. We need men who design cars, and men who fix cars, and men who drive cars. And that is just in the car sector. There are several other jobs, too.

And a world of mechanics would be a world with lots of working cars, but precious little poetry and music and risotto.

I had earned the money which paid for the mechanics to fix my car. I am a real man, dammit. I have the underpants and Sure for Men to prove it.

Reassured in my masculinity, I went back to my work. And then Chaka Khan came on the radio. And as the mechanic walked over to me to tell me the work was complete, I absent-mindedly started to sing along.

“I’m Every Woman, it’s all in meeeee.”

And this is basically why I get the bus.

COLUMN: March 7, 2013

WE have run out of food. I am not talking about an Old Mother Hubbard situation, I just mean that all the food has now been invented.

All we are doing is stalling for time until the scientists finally stop divving about on BBC2 in front of lavishly filmed vistas and get around to inventing magic food pills.

In the absence of actual innovation, the manufacturers of our food are playing around with already existing grub and it’s about time they stopped.

It all started with the Chunky Kit-Kat. The Kit-Kat was a perfectly decent bit of confectionery. Yes, it didn’t stand up to heat, and it was always a little frustrating if it had been just that bit too close to your cup of tea, meaning that half the chocolate got stuck to the foil, but that was part of the hedonistic thrill.

And we even had a choice regarding the size of our wafer-based chocolate treat. If you were some sort of miserable vinegar-faced puritan, or a catwalk model, you could have the two-fingered variety, while normal people could opt for a proper four-fingered Kit-Kat. That was all the choice we needed.

But then some complete idiot decided that what we really needed was a gigantic Kit-Kat, and somehow managed to smuggle that idea past a meeting, and now it’s Kit-Kat anarchy. There are too many flavours and varieties and I am worried that one day there will be a beef Kit-Kat, and what if it isn’t beef, but it’s horse?

And other manufacturers have looked at the terrifying array of Kit-Kattery and decided they would do the same.

I saw a particular chocolate bar on sale today being advertised on the grounds that it had a new shape. That is a little like an off-licence boasting that it is “Under New Management.”

What sort of person is tempted to buy a chocolate bar based on the fact that the shape of the individual chunks has changed? It is hard to imagine, but I will have a go…

CHEZ CHARLES AND EDDIE. (Charles and Eddie are a gay couple, but their sexuality is not an issue in this context. I am just being modern.)
CHARLES: Edwardo, I have just popped to the shops and picked you up a treat.
EDDIE: I wish you wouldn’t call me Edwardo just because we are now gay married. What is the treat?
CHARLES: It is a Fruit & Nut bar, of the sort Frank Muir used to advertise.
EDDIE: Ugh! I cannot believe you have done this to me. I want a gay divorce.
CHARLES: But wait, Edwar… Eddie. Hear me out. I wouldn’t inflict a traditional Fruit & Nut bar upon you. This one is new, and has a curved aspect to its individual pieces, rather then the harsh lines of memory.
EDDIE: Hand it over immediately. I have been waiting even longer for a lozenge-shaped chunk than I have for equal marriage under the law. Then rush back to the shop and buy ALL the Fruit & Nuts. I must have them all.
CHARLES: You really are very high-maintenance, aren’t you?

But all of this nonsense is over-shadowed by the recent faffery surrounding pizzas, and I think we have finally reached the tipping point.

It started with the stuffed crust pizza. I don’t mind a stuffed crust pizza. It is just a way of putting more cheese on a pizza. Who could object to that? If you don’t like cheese on your pizza, you don’t like pizza, so it’s none of your business.

But what we did not realise was that the stuffed crust pizza was the Chunky Kit-Kat moment for pizzas. And it led to the abomination I experienced a few nights ago.

I returned from work to find pizza had been bought for dinner. You don’t need to know why. But I slipped open the lid, noted the tell-tale bulging rim of a stuffed crust pepperoni pizza and lifted a slice to my mouth. I bit into the crust…

It was not cheese. Some imbecile had decided that it was perfectly all right to stuff the crust with hotdog sausages smeared with American mustard, and nobody had the intelligence or the gumption to stop him.

This is how the Roman Empire ended. It is just a matter of months, possibly weeks, before Western Civilisation crumbles. And then we really will run out of food.

And it’s all Professor Brian Cox’s fault.