Saturday, 29 December 2012

Why do I always feel ashamed when stuff stops working?

Our ancient boiler (which may very well have been the prototype for the first Potterton boiler installed in 1902) is going through a temperamental patch. The pilot light keeps going out, and yesterday, when we got it to spark into life again, the boiler refused to make that comforting whooshing noise which signals all’s well with the world. Our boiler chappie has ordered two small parts which, he assures us, will put everything right – but it’ll be a few days before they arrive – and we’re due for a cold spell.

The odd thing about all this is that I subconsciously consider myself to be at fault. Not because I’m too mean to buy a new boiler (I’d love to, but deranged EU regulations mean we’d practically have to rebuild the house in order to instal a new one legally). And it’s not because I’ve done anything whatsoever to hurt its feelings – it’s been a constant companion for 22 years, and shouting at it because it’s a bit knackered would be like swearing at an ancient relative as he launches into the same anecdote for the 200th time.

No, it’s just that when certain things around me go wrong, I feel – bizarrely – personally responsible.

My wife – who’s a lot more practical than I am and likes to know how stuff works – doesn’t react in this way. She accepts the fact that things go wrong sometimes, and it’s occasionally hard for even experts to get them working again. As for me, it’s as if my ignorance and unmanliness have been exposed. Call himself a man? I hear people whispering – he can’t even get the pilot light on his boiler to stay on!

These feelings of embarrassment and inadequacy aren’t confined to heating equipment. Our TV has taken to occasionally displaying a rather fetching tartan pattern on the screen when first switched on. This disappears after the set’s warmed up for a couple of minutes. While waiting for the picture to come on, my wife reads the paper or makes a cup of tea. I fiddle with SCART plugs, even though I know full well these have nothing to do with anything, then I stomp around the house for a bit in a right old dither, vaguely worried that someone will turn up unexpectedly and discover that our television’s throwing a wobbler. Oh, the shame of it!

Same with the car. Having to tell anyone it's on the fritz is akin to announcing that one is suffering from erectile dysfunction. Ditto the computer and the broadband connection. Underperforming financial investments too (that would be all of them, actually). When it comes to blaming myself, the normal laws of cause and effect are suspended – somehow, everything is my fault.

There’s usually temporary relief when someone turns up to repair the fault, even if they can’t fix it, because then I can project my formerly inner-directed anger onto them – a plumber or an electrician can turn from saint to rogue in an eye-blink, as if it’s now, magically, their fault rather than mine.

I have no idea why I should react like this. I think I’ve always been this way, but the condition seemed to go into overdrive after my son was born. I’ve become less hair-shirty over the last few years. I suspect that’s because my wife regularly points out that I’m doing it again, and I’ve even begun to be able to recognise the tendency unaided.

Maybe it’s to do with an atavistic distrust of the division of labour, a harking back to the days before humans realised that each family making its own weapons, accommodation and clothing was a mug’s game, because the only way you escape the subsistence trap was to specialise and barter any excess for goods that other individuals, families or tribes had over-produced. (Eco-fascism is essentially based on a desire to return to a non-specialist mode of existence where every family lives in constant fear of starving to death.)

Or maybe it’s the result of my guilt-rich Lutheran-Presbyterian heritage - my free-floating guilt feelings need a focus.

Or maybe it’s simply because I’m an idiot. After all, why should I know how boilers and cars and computers work, let alone how to fix the bloody things when they stop working?

(We just convinced the boiler to start working again - fingers crossed!)


  1. You are not alone. You were probably brought up like your contemporaries to expect that you would never have to learn how to fix a boiler, sort out the TV connection or mend a broken pipe because there were people whose charges your immeasurably larger income would be able to afford. Those were the days.

    Added to this was the division in what you studied between the arty types and the scientifics, which kicked in somewhere between 13 and 16 when most of us took no further interest in impedances, wiring diagrams and voltages, while others never read another poem.

    We all value most the things we can't do. Your boiler man couldn't wrote a brilliant analysis of the Fauvists. Just get over yourself!

    1. One of the results of that teenage scientist/non-scientist division, I find, is that I can read popular science books with great enjoyment, only to realise five minutes after I've shut them that I have retained nothing whatsoever from them. It's as if one's brain contains no framework into which to slot the knowledge for later retrieval - the revelations that had one ooing and aahing for several hundred pages are gone with the wind. Similarly, I can actually manage to grasp how a boiler works for the same period of time - about five minutes - and then it's disappeared.

      I will quiz our boilerman about his knowledge of the Fauves when he eventually returns, but I shall wear protective headgear while doing so.

  2. " swearing at an ancient relative as he launches into the same anecdote for the 200th time." A rather wounding comment.

    In Scotland, everyone over the age of 65 can apply for a brand new central heating system. The cost is paid by the English tax-payer. A very satisfactory arrangement.

    1. Actually, I was thinking about myself - but now you come to mention it...

      Like all tax-payers in England, I'm delighted to help out - especially as your countrymen are so quick to express their gratitude.

  3. You have my sympathy, here's hoping that the cold spell stays away. Buy a woodburning stove, low tech and fills many a basic need.

    1. Thank you, mellorview - though, reading your blog, you're far more deserving of sympathy - we have one of those element things in the tank which at least produces enough tepid water for a shower. I'm not sure wood-burning stoves are practical here in West London, but I appreciate them when I stay with relatives in Cornwall, who are among the seven or percent percent you mention who don't have central heating.

      Given the boiler has now been working for the last 20 hours, I feel like a bit of fraud for mentioning it!