Dear Dave

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Responsible carpentry

Dear Dave,

Bang, bang, bang... Whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr...

Bang, bang.

Mutter, mutter, curse, mutter...


This is the sound-track to my life at the moment as tradesmen struggle to fit new electrical sockets into the walls of the kitchen. They keep encountering the random bits of metal hidden in the plaster. Perhaps the original builders thought these little surprises would add structural integrity somehow or the previous owners imagined lining the house with ferrous material would prevent aliens from scanning their minds. Who knows? The main outcome, however, seems to be that drilling a hole in our house is like a crazy carnival game of skill and chance (involving power tools). Will the bit tear three inches through plaster and brick? Or will it mysteriously stop after a centimetre and a half with a tortured screeching sound?

It's always an entertaining pastime but it's particularly fun when trying to anchor something using multiple screws. Like as not, everything will go fine until you've drilled enough holes to absolutely confirm the positioning of the curtain rail or cupboard but not enough to actually ensure it stays up. After that, it's iron-cladding all the way.

It's a great game. The electricians downstairs are really enjoying it...

Ho well, at least they're here and they seem reasonably competent. That's all I really look for these days. I've long since realised that tradesmen (and they do all seem to be men) regard acceptable customer service as putting stuff together in such a way that it works, is safe and doesn't fall apart. Good customer service involves also making it look nice. Turning up on time, listening carefully to requirements, keeping the customer informed and providing accurate estimates and invoices aren't really anything to do with it. These are occasionally necessary evils required to stop the customer phoning up five times a day.

I've grown used to this and now accept it as the way of the world. In fact, when the haulage firm telephoned a week in advance to confirm delivery of the new kitchen units I was quite surprised because they'd already posted the information. When they phoned again the day before arriving, then again on the delivery morning and twice more after that to keep me appraised of delays, I began to think they were stalking me.

In contrast, we had to get the suppliers to goad their trained fitters into finally turning up to do the detailed measuring. Then we had to repeat the procedure to get the fitters to provide an estimate of installation costs. We eventually got a terse email briefly listing the work required and with a number at the bottom. There was no break down and it was the night before we needed to confirm the order. We replied with details of which parts of the work we wanted done and asking for a revised estimate.

The fitters didn't respond.


When Monday rolled round, we weren't even entirely sure they were going to turn up. It wouldn't have been the first time we'd prepared at length for the arrival of a crack team of tradesmen subcontracted by a national company and then had them fail to show. When we had the insurance work done after our flood, I had to phone the repair firm's secretary so often to chase up AWOL tradesmen, I'd have been quicker friending her on Facebook and simply having been done with it.

It's weird. Plumbers and joiners and electricians seem unaware that it doesn't matter how good a job they eventually manage, if they don't do what they say they're going to do, on the day they say they're going to do it, I'm not going to be keen to recommend them. Perhaps they all have so much work to do anyway, they don't care, but it's still a little mystifying.

The excuse is usually that there was a communications mix up or that a previous job overran. If I'm lucky, I get a small apology but that's not guaranteed. I'm given the impression I'm meant to accept these explanations in a similar fashion to volcanic eruptions or an inopportune downpour of sharks - acts of God completely beyond a tradesman's control. They weren't taking a sneaky holiday and they didn't actively plan to leave my life in wet, collapsing chaos, so they aren't at fault.

It's mad. Now I think about it, however, it does sound kind of familiar...

The age of criminal responsibility is going to go up from eight to twelve in Scotland and there are calls for it to be raised in England and Wales as well (where it's currently ten). At first glance, this doesn't seem like a good idea. Lewis is eight and I'm fairly sure he has a decent grasp on right and wrong. He knows full well not to hurt other people, to set fire to stuff or steal things. In Fraser's class, meanwhile, I suspect there are a number of nine and ten year-olds who would quite like to do these things if they thought they could get away with it. It's reassuring they're legally responsible for their actions.

Thinking about it more carefully, though, maybe the issue isn't knowing the difference between right and wrong. Certainly, with my kids, it's the difference between right and careless that's the problem. It doesn't matter whether they're hitting each other, destroying the house or getting in my way, when my children are told off, they'll almost invariably cry, "I didn't mean to do it!"

I'm forced to respond, "You didn't try not to do it, either."

There isn't anything inherently anti-social about walking backwards or playing a handheld games console or eating a chocolate bar or using stairs. Doing all these things at the same time, however, is not the best plan. Neither is getting in the culprit's way and trying to wrestle the console from them because it's not their turn anymore. Standing at the bottom of the stairs and watching, meanwhile, is maybe less of a culpable act but it's not as good as going and finding a responsible adult to break up the fight. It's also stupid and liable to end in bruising.

And what reply do I get when I reiterate the rules?

"I forgot."

This is said as if reporting an unavoidable natural catastrophe on a par with a meteor strike or a sudden outbreak of badgers - something unforeseeable and beyond their control.

I can only shake my head for the thousandth time. "You have to try not to forget."

So, yeah, perhaps kids shouldn't be tried as criminals. It's a bit much to expect children to grasp concepts that many adults clearly struggle with. My only concern is that there have to be proper alternatives and some humane way of dealing with repeat offenders. We need something that will enlighten them but be so dull that they'll want to avoid going back. We need something that will make the world a better place whatever they go on to do in later life, whether tradesman or housedad, lawyer or doctor, banker or MP.

I'm thinking they should all be sent on a customer service course...

Yours in a woman's world,


No comments: