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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (aquassimus)

Water, Water Everywhere

I had a shower this morning.

Normally I wouldn’t bother mentioning that. After all, I imagine that I’m in good company. Lots of people must have had a shower this morning; so why should I make a song and dance about mine? But unlike all those other people, I haven’t had access to a properly working shower for two weeks now, so this morning’s ablutions had an unusual importance for me.

It all began one Saturday morning when I awoke to the sound of running water. This puzzled me. The previous night I had gone to bed soothed by the sound of complete silence. So where was this morning’s noise coming from? I struggled sleepily into some clothes and went looking. There were no taps turned on anywhere in the house and there were no large puddles on the floor. So I checked what was going on outside the house and that was when I discovered that I had a problem.

A pipe runs from the council Toby to a shutoff valve at the side of the house. This feeds water through a pressure reduction valve which in turn feeds water into the household plumbing. The pressure reduction valve had ruptured some time during the night and now high pressure water was streaming out of it and shooting up into the sky. The side of my house looked like it was playing host to the famous fountain on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, or perhaps to the slightly more famous one on Oriental Bay in Wellington. The long, graceful arc of water caught the sunrise, refracting it hither and yon. If I squinted just right I could see rainbows hitting the side of the house at the top of the fountain and then slithering down the wall  to form an enormous puddle.

I closed the shutoff valve and the spray of water died away. Unfortunately that meant that there was no water available to me anywhere in the house, so I opened the shutoff valve again. In retrospect, this might have been a mistake, though I suspect that the damage had already been done, so maybe it didn’t make all that much difference…

The spraying fountain resumed and water flowed into the household pipes again. I called my plumber, but he doesn’t work on weekends, so I left a voicemail message for him and went googling for emergency plumbers. I learned that if I was willing to part with an eye-watering amount of money, an emergency plumber would be happy to visit the house so that he could scratch his head, suck air through his teeth and say, "Oh, you’ve got a bit of a problem there squire. I can’t get the parts I need to fix it until Monday when the warehouse opens again. So I suggest you call your own plumber when the weekend is over."

This did not strike me as being much of a bargain. Clearly there was nothing to be done until Monday. I closed the shutoff valve again. For the next two days, whenever I needed water in the house I dashed outside to open the shutoff valve. Once I had finished with the immediate water-requiring task I popped back outside and turned it off again. This was good exercise but nevertheless it was clear that I was going to have a very long and very frustrating weekend in front of me.

* * * *

The world has an awful lot of books in in it – you may have noticed. And more of them are being published every day. It’s quite impossible to keep up and even more impossible to choose the right book for the right occasion. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was only one book in the world, a book that could stand in for every other book? If there was such a book, life would be so much simpler for everyone. It was thoughts such as these that inspired Philomena Cunk to write Cunk on Everything which is perhaps best summed up by its subtitle which is The Encyclopedia Philomena. Now that she’s finally completed her magnum opus, all other books have become obsolete and may safely be ignored.

Do you want to know about evolution? Philomena tells us that evolution was invented by Charles Darwin when he sat down under a tree one day and an apple fell on his head. This made Darwin suspect that there might be a monkey further up in the tree and that the monkey was throwing apples at him. Craning his neck upwards in search of the monkey he found that the rush of blood to the head prompted a thought and that thought led to another thought which led to another and suddenly he’d invented evolution. Neither the world nor the monkeys have ever been the same since.

Cunk’s book is particularly full of information about the pocalypse, something which obviously worries her deeply. She tells us that the pocalypse will sneak up on us and catch us all quite unawares in four hundred billion years time. Clearly there isn’t a moment to lose. We all need to start preparing for the pocalypse right now, before it’s too late to do anything about it.

One fascinating new fact that I learned from Cunk on Everything is the reason why all the swans in the UK belong to the Queen (as she was when the book was written – presumably these days they all belong to the King). It seems that the ruling monarch is the only person in the country who is physically able to eat a swan. This is because every ruling monarch has an extra stomach dedicated solely to the digestion of swans. This stomach is full of the crown jewels which the monarch has to swallow as part of the coronation ceremony. The friction of the jewels against the coarse swan meat is what grinds the swan into easily digestible particles. People who don’t have a jewel filled extra stomach will never be able to eat a swan so there’s absolutely no point in hunting them down. Therefore, from time immemorial, everyone has always donated their swans to the monarch.

Every British child learns all about 1066 The Battle of Hastings at school. That’s because 1066 The Battle of Hastings is one of the most important things that ever happened in Hastings even though it actually happened eleven kilometres northwest of Hastings at a town called Battle, so named because that’s where the battle really took place. But 1066 the Battle of Battle sounds silly so they named it after Hastings instead.  

We know exactly what 1066 The Battle of Hastings was like because there exists an accurate visual representation of the whole event thanks to a quick thinking bystander who took a tapestry of it. It’s known as The Baywatch Tapestry and it vividly captures the full force of the conflict. It’s just like being there, only in wool.

Philomena Cunk is particularly good on literature. Her favourite novel is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Cunk tells us that this is the first ever science fiction novel, and she’s not wrong! She explains how Frankenstein cobbled his creature together from various bits and pieces that he had lying around and then he plugged the creature into the mains so as to bring it to life. Of course there was no reliable mains electricity back in those days. Consequently the only way that Frankenstein was able to get hold of sufficient voltage to ampimate his creature was to fly a wire up into the heart of a storm that was raging in the sky and take the power from there. That’s what makes the book the first science fiction novel. It was the first ever story to predict downloading stuff from the cloud.

Cunk on Everything is full of pages. And every page is full of profound insights such as these. Truly it is the only book that you will ever need.

If you’ve seen any of Philomena Cunk’s television shows you will find that a lot of the jokes in the book sound strangely familiar. This is because she has simply transcribed her TV scripts wholesale into the book. Oddly enough, this has the effect of making the book much funnier than it might otherwise have been. The jokes are twice as funny the second time around. I am at a loss to explain this, but it is undeniably true.

Unruly! Is a book by David Mitchell. No, not that David Mitchell, the other one, the one who never gets short listed for the Booker prize, the one you see almost every day on the telly. Unruly! Is a series of extraordinarily erudite and extremely funny essays about the lives and times of every English King and Queen all the way from Arthur (who didn’t exist) up to and including Elizabeth I (who did exist. Probably.)

For once, the audiobook (which is read by David Mitchell himself) is actually a much better book than the printed version. I own them both, so trust me on this. David Mitchell is famous for delivering very ranty monologues about this, that and the other. Unruly! Is stuffed full of typical David Mitchell rants all of which really have to be heard delivered by his own fruitily angry voice. If you just read the printed words, you can’t help feeling that something is missing. It all comes across as rather flat.

He has, for example, an utterly marvellous rant about the Baywatch Tapestry (though for some odd reason he calls it the Bayeux Tapestry). He points out that it is not actually a tapestry at all, it’s really an embroidery. Then he goes on to wonder why, given that it’s the most famous object on earth ever to be referred to as a tapestry, has this not resulted in the definition of the word ‘tapestry’ being widened to include it? After all, isn’t the English language supposed to be governed by usage rather than being hobbled by arbitrarily imposed rules of the kind that make the French language so inflexible, and so utterly French?

Furthermore, he goes on to tell us, despite its name and its location it’s not really a French Tapestry at all. It’s actually an English Embroidery which was commissioned by the victorious Normans, but since they didn’t have the skill base to commemorate their triumph in needlework, they had to have it made in England by English women instead. So there!

Hearing all this delivered in tones of full Mitchellian indignation will make you cry tears of laughter. Just reading the words to yourself will only make you smile.

Mitchell’s thesis throughout the book is that England’s monarchs have always been feudal gangsters – violent, nasty and generally incompetent men (mostly) who just got lucky but whose luck eventually ran out on (most of) them. He comes up with a lot of very convincing evidence for this point of view. It’s a somewhat cynical and jaundiced view of the world, but who am I to say that he’s wrong?

* * * *

Monday arrived and with it my plumber.  He scratched his head, sucked air through his teeth and said, "Oh, you’ve got a bit of a problem there squire. But I called in at the warehouse before I came here so I’ve got the parts I need to fix it." He strapped pads to his knees to protect them from the cold, hard ground, turned the water off at the council Toby and set to work on the shutoff valve and the pressure reducing valve. About two hours later he said, with an air of triumph, "There you are. All fixed." He turned the council Toby back on and he opened the shutoff valve. There was no Geneva Fountain of water this time, which was a big improvement on the weekend situation. But then the plumber frowned worriedly and said, "Oh, oh!"

I didn’t like the sound of that at all. "What’s the matter?" I asked.

"There’s still water running somewhere," he said. "Listen."

I listened. I could hear the clear sound of water rushing through a pipe. Together we checked all the taps in the house. They were all turned off. Nevertheless water continued to run. Where on earth could it be running from and where was it running to? The plumber squatted down and applied his ear the the pipes that came into the house. After a few minutes of careful listening he pointed to a pipe that angled out of a large and complicated  cluster of pipes and valves. Once free of the cluster it dived down into the concrete slab on which the house is built. "It’s that one," he said triumphantly. "Water’s going into that one and coming out somewhere in the slab. You’ve got a really nasty leak somewhere in that pipe, squire."

"What can we do about it?" I asked.

The plumber looked thoughtful. "Well," he said, "the obvious thing to do is to pull up the carpet and the lino, smash the floor tiles and then take a pneumatic drill to the slab. We’ll have to dig up the pipe right across the house from beginning to end so as to see exactly where it goes, what it supplies water to, and where it’s leaking from. After all there’s no guarantee that you only have one leak. There could be several of them all the way along it. That’s why we have to follow the pipe right the way to the end."

"I don’t  think much of that solution," I said. "It sounds messy, not to say expensive."

The plumber nodded thoughtfully. "It’s definitely both of those," he said.

"So what comes next?" I asked.

"Let’s start by finding out what this pipe actually does," he said. He shut the water off again and began dismantling the leaky pipe. He attached a valve with a rather fetching blue knob on the end of it to the pipe. He turned the blue knob to close the valve and then he went outside and turned the water on again. There was absolutely no sound whatsoever to be heard apart from the singing of birds in the trees. "There," he said triumphantly. "I’ve isolated the leaky pipe and there’s no water going down it. Now let’s see which bits of plumbing work and which don’t. Any bits that don’t work are clearly the bits that this pipe feeds water to."

We moved around the house together, turning on taps and flushing toilets as we went. Water flowed happily through all of them. I tried the washing machine and the dishwasher. Both behaved exactly as washing machines and dishwashers are supposed to behave. "That’s odd," I said to the plumber. "Everything seems to be working. Perhaps the pipe wasn’t connected to anything at all."

"It must be connected to something," said the plumber. "Let’s double check."

We tried again and this time we spotted it. Neither of our two showers had any cold water coming out of them. They were each happy to provide water that was far too hot to stand under, but they point blank refused to cool that water down.

"There," said the plumber. "Mystery solved. That pipe feeds cold water to both your showers."

"So now what do we do?" I asked.

"Simple," he said. "Whenever you want to have a shower you just crawl into the tiny space where the new valve is and turn the blue knob to open the valve up. Water will flow and you can have a shower. When you’ve finished the shower you crawl back into that tiny space and close the blue knob again to stop water flowing down the pipe. Problem solved!"

"No it isn’t," I said. "While I am showering water will be flowing through the leaky pipe into the concrete slab as well as into the shower. I don’t think that’s a good idea at all. Who knows what damage it will do over time. Also, I really don’t fancy crawling into that tiny space to turn a blue knob every time I want a shower. The knob is a very pretty shade of blue, but nevertheless it’s in a very inconvenient place."

"Well," said the plumber, "the shower in the main bathroom is just across the corridor from the pipe with the blue-knobbed valve on it. That’s no distance at all. I suppose I could quite easily  run a new pipe from there up into the roof and then down to the shower. "

"That will do it," I said. "Could you extend the new pipe to the other shower as well?"

"Not really," he said. "That shower is right away at the other end of the house." He started a long, technical explanation as to why he couldn’t do it. Clearly he didn’t want to run a new pipe over such a long distance. Instead he was going to blind me with science and make me say OK, let’s not bother.

"OK," I said, "let’s not bother. That bathroom is being renovated in a couple of months anyway. I’ll get the renovators to fix it."

"It should be easy to get a new cold water feed to the shower once the renovators get the gib off the walls and expose the plumbing," he said. "They’ll be able to take a feed across from the existing cold water pipe that supplies the toilet and the vanity basin tap. In the meantime you can carry on using that shower as long as you twiddle the blue knob to turn the cold water on temporarily. I’ll come back next week and start work on running a new pipe to the main bathroom."

* * * *

Oh Miriam! Is the second volume of Miriam Margolyes’ autobiography, following on from last year’s This Much Is True. Like the first volume it is largely rambling and anecdotal, lewd, crude and, on occasion, very rude. If overly intimate descriptions of perfectly normal bodily functions are not your cup of tea, you might want to avoid this book. But if you do avoid it, you will be missing a lot – Miriam Margolyes is a highly intelligent person who thinks deeply about things and her opinions are always worth listening to. She certainly doesn’t arrive at them from nowhere. For example, drawing on her upbringing and experiences as a Jew, she is quite scathing about the policies of the Israeli government in general and of the policies and personality of Benjamin Netanyahu in particular. In light of recent developments in Israel and the Gaza strip, I find her remarks to be extremely (and eerily) prescient.

She has been described as a national treasure but she herself prefers to be thought of as a national trinket. I can’t think of a better way of picturing her.

The book was reviewed by The Guardian. I read, and greatly enjoyed, that review. The reviewer said that she is "...our naughtiest national treasure . . . famously filthy, funny and phlegmatic . . ." which I think sums her up perfectly. However several hundred people commented on this review and I was shocked to discover that the majority of the commentators appeared to have an utterly unreasoning and vituperative hatred of Miriam Margolyes. An extraordinarily large number of the comments have been deleted and replaced with the sentences: This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn't abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted. Even the few comments that remain are often offensive and insulting.

The standard of journalism in The Guardian remains as high as it ever was (though I do miss the speelling mistooks...). What a shame I cannot say the same about the modern day Guardian readers. When did the traditional free-thinking, tolerant Guardian reader turn into such a prudish, narrow-minded, intolerant bigot?

Michael Palin never knew his Great Uncle Harry. How could he? Harry died in 1916, fighting in the Battle of the Somme and Michael Palin himself wasn’t born until 1943, right in the middle of yet another war. Harry was always an elusive figure far in Michael’s past when Michael was growing up. Harry didn’t even have a grave for Michael to visit – his body was never found. Presumably, like so many other soldiers, he ended up as just an anonymous pile of shattered bones in a field somewhere in Northern France.

Even though Harry and Michael never met, Harry’s short life and early death always fascinated Michael. His new book, Great Uncle Harry chronicles his efforts to learn more about the man. It’s really quite amazing how much information Michael has managed to tease out of dusty official archives, ancient photographs and other people’s diaries – Harry himself only started to keep a diary during his war service though it was often a less than informative source, infuriatingly lacking in both detail and insight. This makes Michael’s own achievements all the more remarkable.

After leaving school, Harry’s first employment was as a (very) junior manager on a tea plantation in India. He never distinguished himself in the job and his managers bemoaned both his laziness and his stupidity. Clearly he was never going to fit in. He bummed around for a while, returning briefly to England, and eventually he ended up in New Zealand where he got a job as a farmhand. By all accounts, he enjoyed the farming life and, for once, he was quite good at it as well. And there he might well have stayed for the rest of his life except that the first world war caught up with him and he enlisted in the New Zealand army. He saw active service in Gallipoli and survived the whole of that ill-fated campaign without receiving a single scratch. That in itself is quite an amazing statistic...

Harry went straight from one military debacle to another one as he left Gallipoli and went on to fight on the battlefields of the Somme. And that’s where fate finally caught up with him. He was 32 years old when he died.

This is a fascinating book both as a biography and as a chronicle of the astonishing amount of detective work that Michael had to put in so as to flesh out what were often very bare informational bones indeed. Because the available material is so limited, Michael often has to interpolate and extrapolate in search of means and motives as he tries to help us understand the kind of person that Harry might have been. Often he gives Harry the benefit of the doubt where ambiguities exist, but he does so in a way that is both open to uncertainty and yet remains sensitive to the historical context.

As Harry’s military career progressed so too did his diary start to metamorphose. Simple lists of dates and locations give way to longer dispatches. Harry describes the act of sending thousands of men like him to their death with no clear purpose in mind as "pure murder" (a verdict that history has endorsed). Information about personal triumphs and tragedies start to appear in the diary. Harry tells us of a long-distance courtship which was clearly hugely important to him. But it didn’t work out.  On what turned out to be his final leave, he records that he  "...put the question to her on parting, but I fear it’s no good...God bless her. I love her and I think she loves me, but not enough to marry me." Shortly after writing those words, he was dead.

Somehow, despite ending in tragedy, this manages not to be a sad book. It’s full of life and fun and joy. I think that's a great achievement in and of itself.

* * * *

For the next couple of days I twiddled my blue knob on whenever I wanted a shower and twisted it off again when I’d finished. Then it was Saturday again. I played with my knob and prepared for a shower, but the water came out icy cold. I tried all the hot taps in the house but there wasn’t a drop of hot water coming out of any of them.  So I phoned the lines company and they sent an electrician round. He checked fuses, and measured power levels and made an announcement. "The heating element in the hot water cylinder is dead. You’ll have to call a plumber on Monday to get a new one fitted." Then, his job being done, he left.

I rang the plumber and left a message because, of course, the plumber doesn’t work on the weekend. I spent Saturday and Sunday watching television and not showering. On Monday morning the plumber turned up with a heating element for the hot water cylinder and a clothes peg for his nose to protect himself from my fragrance. He drained the hot water cylinder and removed the old element which was indeed a twisted, corroded mass of very sick looking copper. How it had ever managed to heat anything at all was beyond me. I glared fiercely at it, and lumps fell off it under the pressure of my gaze.

Then the plumber fitted the new element and refilled the cylinder. "Now you’ll have to call an electrician to connect the element up," he said. "I’m allowed to take the wires off the terminals in order to remove the old element, but I’m not allowed to re-connect those same wires to the new element. Only a registered electrician is allowed to do that, and I’m not one."

I rang an electrician and made the appropriate arrangements. In the fullness of time he turned up and spent 30 seconds connecting the wires to the new heating element terminals. Then he presented me with a certificate of electrical compliance for the new element together with an invoice for $168.75. Not bad money for 30 seconds of work. He went off to his next job and I resumed watching television. Six hours later I had a cylinder full of hot water. I twisted my blue knob and had a shower.

The next day the plumber returned to start work on feeding a new cold water pipe into the shower in the main bathroom. He removed the mixer in the shower cabinet, exposing the pipes behind it, and he disconnected the old cold pipe. Then he climbed up into the roof to find out just where he needed to feed the new pipe through. After a few minutes I heard him call me. "Alan," he said, "where am I?"

"You’re in the roof," I told him.

"Accurate," he said, "but not helpful. Can you see the wire I’ve stuck through the ceiling in the bathroom?"

I went into the bathroom and checked. Just above the shower a wire poked up through the ceiling and into the roof space. "I see it," I said.

"Wiggle it about a bit," instructed the plumber. "When I spot the movement I’ll be able to zero in on it and find the proper spot for the new pipe." I wiggled the wire enthusiastically. "Got it!" said the plumber triumphantly. I stopped wiggling and went back to what I’d been doing while the plumber drilled holes and pushed pipes through them.

Time passed.

"Take a look at this," said the plumber proudly. I went into the main bathroom. The new pipe was poking shyly out of a large hole where the shower mixer tap had once been. "That’s all the difficult bits done," said the plumber. "I’ll come back on Friday and connect it all up." He packed up his tools and left. I resigned myself to another couple of days of blue knob twiddling.

On Friday the plumber returned and finished connecting the new pipe to the shower in the main bathroom. That took a couple of hours. Then he replaced the mixer and sealed the backplate. "Let the sealant on the backplate dry overnight," he said, "and then you are all good to go."

* * * *

When Terry Pratchett died he left instructions that all his unpublished material must be destroyed. He had a horror of ending up like J. R. R. Tolkien or Douglas Adams with every last jotting and note and laundry list dragged out into public view. He abhored the sound of the bottoms of barrels being scraped. Consequently in 2017 Rob Wilkins, his business manager, literary executor and author of a fine Pratchett biography drove a steamroller over the hard drive on which all the Pratchettiana was stored, reducing it to an amorphous heap of junk.

But every instruction has a loophole and so now we have a new collection of Pratchett short stories to read. A Stroke of the Pen contains twenty short stories that Pratchett wrote and published in the 1970s – the loophole is that Pratchett’s instructions applied only to unpublished material. These stories were published, albeit in an obscure newspaper (the Western Daily Press) under a pseudonym (Patrick Kearns – Kearns was his mother’s maiden name and Patrick almost sounds like Pratchett if you squint your ears a little bit).

They are not the best stories ever written. They are pleasant enough in their own right I suppose, but there’s very little sign of the greatness that Pratchett would achieve in later years. Most are just a few pages long, peopled by caricatures and riffing briefly on one or other ludicrous situation: comical cave people inventing modern day stuff (shades of Roy Lewis here). There’s a haunted steamroller (was it the one that would later destroy his hard drive?) There’s even a story about the difficulties of baking a pie that is a hundred yards long. That’s not impossible of course. In 2005 students in New Zealand baked a pavlova that was 64 metres, (70 yards) long. In 2018 a Norwegian chef smashed that record when he baked an 85 metre (93 yards) pavlova. So the real world is slowly sneaking up on Pterry’s story...

Many of the stories refer to people who are now long lost to history, having had their fifteen minutes of fame and then passed on. How many modern readers will understand an Eamon Andrews or Hughie Green pastiche? They might recognise Bruce Forsooth since Brucie did hang around into the twenty first century, but I’ll bet nobody remembers Lew Grade any more…

There are occasional sparks of originality. One story starts from the premise that putting a fossilised seashell to your ear will enable you to hear the sound of a prehistoric ocean. The hero listens to just such a shell and is somewhat surprised to hear a faint voice singing Oh I do like to be beside the seaside… over the sound of the waves. The story is a genuinely funny and very clever little time-travel tale.

I mildly enjoyed the stories, but I have to say that this book is really only for completists. However the cynic in me is certain that it will shoot to the top of the best seller lists and stay there for ages. That’s the power of Pratchett for you. GNU Pterry.

* * * *

The Plumber packed up all his tools and left. I made a sign that said NO TWIDDLING in large, friendly letters and hung it on the blue knob. The next day I got up and had my first proper shower for a fortnight. Then I took Jake the Dog for his morning walk. "It’s Saturday," I said to him. "Nothing can possibly go wrong."

"My leg hurts," said Jake, limping along behind me.

Vets, like plumbers, don’t work on weekends.

Philomena Cunk Cunk on Everything Two Roads
David Mitchell Unruly! Penguin
Miriam Margolyes Oh Miriam! John Murray
Michael Palin Great Uncle Harry Penguin
Terry Pratchett A Stroke of the Pen Doubleday
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