A few weeks ago the boiler in my apartment in Prague began to reveal its age (and at more than twenty it probably deserved a telegram from the Queen). It struggled on gamely for a week or so, supplying just enough hot water for the radiators, but only cold to the bathroom and the kitchen sink. It was a case of bracing morning showers for a few weeks, though, to be fair to the boiler, there was, just for a while, a way of surprising it into providing a few seconds of tepid water, but you had to be nifty with the soap.
The gasman came, fiddled with the bits inside, stood on the lavatory seat (and broke it), and, after forty minutes or so, expressed satisfaction with what he’d done. It cost me about 50 EUR, but, even so, just a few minutes later, once he’d gone, we were more or less back where we were, only now the tepid water trick (twisting the tap as rapidly as possible from a standing start to maximum volume) no longer worked.
A day or two later the boiler coughed and spluttered and gave up the ghost for good. The gasman came again and prescribed a new 2,000 EUR boiler, which, two weeks later he, and a gang of workmen, then installed. Installation involved destroying the ceiling to meet new (European Union) regulations on ventilation. But, finally, the hot water flowed, even if not as copiously as before (EU regulations limiting the maximum gas consumption, and therefore the crude boiling capacity of the ordinary domestic gas boiler).
A day or two later another man came to mend the ceiling, and then another man came to paint it. The man who came to paint the ceiling damaged the marble tiles, so I think there’ll be another man in another few days, and perhaps another one after that. Never, so far, a woman. It all made me rather angry and intolerant. I know there are greater problems in the world, but today my world was small and I was its tyrant. (I fear I will never become a Saint.)
It all puts me in mind of Flanders and Swann. They were a popular musical comedy act in the 1960s, one man singing and the other one playing the piano, both, of course, dapper in their dinner jackets. They were never funnier than in their droll classic, ‘The Gasman Cometh.’
It’s a historical curiosity and speaks volumes about the class consciousness of the times. In Flanders’ introductory remark that, ‘You’ll all be familiar with this kind of thing,’ there’s an assumption that the audience could never include an actual gasman, painter, carpenter, electrician, or glazier, or any of the other ‘working men’ they sing about.
The words are these:
‘Twas on a Monday morning the gas man came to call.
The gas tap wouldn’t turn – I wasn’t getting gas at all.
He tore out all the skirting boards to try and find the main
And I had to call a carpenter to put them back again.
‘Twas on a Tuesday morning the carpenter came round.
He hammered and he chiselled and he said:”Look what I’ve found:
your joists are full of dry rot. But I’ll put them all to rights”.
Then he nailed right through a cable and out went all the lights!
‘Twas on a Wednesday morning the electrician came.
He called me Mr. Sanderson, which isn’t quite the name.
He couldn’t reach the fuse box without standing on the bin
And his foot went through a window so I called the glazier in.
‘Twas on a Thursday morning the glazier came round
With his blow torch and his putty and his merry glazier’s song.
He put another pane in – it took no time at all
But I had to get a painter in to come and paint the wall.
‘Twas on a Friday morning the painter made a start.
With undercoats and overcoats he painted every part:
Every nook and every cranny – but I found when he was gone
He’d painted over the gas tap and I couldn’t turn it on!
On Saturday and Sunday they do no work at all;
So ’twas on a Monday morning that the gasman came to call…
‘It all makes work for the working man to do,’ they scoff, as if we’d never expect the same self-interest of lawyers, accountants or cosmetic surgeons.
Hear them sing it (The Gasman Cometh).
I loved the song as a child, and I still chortle quietly as the last line announces, with profound and resigned inevitability, that the gasman once more cometh.
Today, in our more democratic times, the gasman is at least the equal of the lawyer, the engineer, the IT consultant. Indeed, he or she may know a lot more about things that actually matter than the more patrician professional types. We are all equal now, at least in the sense that most of us who work in one profession or another provide a service to some others, the lawyer to the carpenter, the accountant to the glazier, the electrician to the gasman. We are all as likely to please or not, and we all serve and are served. It just depends on the circumstances.
And then it struck me, having descended from the tyrant’s pedestal, that what can be said about the gasman and his train of unintended colleagues and consequences, can as easily be said about the software engineer. We change a single line of code and, several interfaces down the line, a system somewhere crashes and burns. Perhaps someone should write a song about that.