When I was training to be an electrician, I went to college in Southampton.
Most of us were mature students, who had perhaps tried and failed to work for other people, and were sick of it. I don’t think any of us really wanted a boss again.
Being self-employed doesn’t really mean not having a boss; it’s more, everybody is your boss. Thankfully, I tore my back up before I lost heart for the idea of working for people.
There were a lot of textbooks on the course, as one might expect. Large, flaccid tomes on maths and physics, equations, current carrying capacity, health and safety and similar brain-aches.
I can say with some certainty that most of us were there for a career change. At least, for a career. Many of us came with no experience. Some of us blew up RCDs during our first class on inspection and testing, having failed to remove a link between live and earth – which was used for continuity testing, but nothing else.
There was a man on my course, who was unlike the rest of us. He hadn’t joined the college, spent a few thousand pounds and endless hours of study in order to become an electrician. No, no. He had done all this because he had recently rewired his house.
Feeling quite proud, and seemingly rather affluent, he enrolled on the course so that he would be able to sign off his own house. Nothing more. For a fraction of the cost, he could have got an already-qualified electrician to come in and do an inspection and test on the wiring.
It was important to him, however, that he have the honour of filling in the paperwork.
The paperwork, as in so many fields, is tedious, borderline coma-inducing.
Among our many lectures, there were a few about wired-in heating systems. Underfloor heating was just becoming popular at the time.
With more than a little pride, the man who’d fitted out his whole house nodded and said, “I’ve fitted underfloor heating.”
He might as well have buffed his fingernails.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one: I felt woefully inadequate.
It transpired there wasn’t a square inch of his house he hadn’t fitted with underfloor heating.
Oh, how his face fell (a little puddle of drool came out) when the lecturer underlined the importance of adequate earthing in underfloor heating.
He hadn’t earthed it.
With speed, hitherto unwitnessed, he called his wife and, struggling to keep his voice in check, asked her to “just turn off the main switch, Janis”. He wasn’t looking for an argument, he told her, just switch it off. She did. We heard her scowling down the phone.
He probably accumulated a decent collection of speeding tickets on his way home. Poor man, but he had to take out practically all the furniture, tear the floor up, rewire it, get it tested by a professional, refit the floorboards, move the furniture back in, and try and get his wife to believe it wasn’t that serious.
Far as I know, they’re speaking again.
One of my lecturers, Phil, said the smartest thing I think I’ve ever heard. I’ve quoted this many, many times.
“The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.” The man became a guru in my eyes. He could have formed a cult. I would have been treasurer.
You might feel a bit silly for having to ask, but at least you’ll have an answer. Genius.
He should, at least, have a fan site.
Phil once had a call from a company selling conservatories. I think he was renting, so he wouldn’t have been in a position to order one, but he decided it would be entertaining to waste somebody’s time. So, he agreed to a no obligation quote. The company representative visited him a few days later.
“Where would you like the conservatory to be fitted?” the freshly suited and sweet-smelling representative asked.
“Oh well, outside the master bedroom, I think,” he answered.
The rep nodded, and made a note on his clipboard.
“The master bedroom’s on the second floor,” Phil explained. “Will that be all right?”
“We – we can’t fit a conservatory on the second floor!” the rep choked.
“Can you not?” Phil asked, innocently.
“Where would we put the foundations?” the rep scolded. “You’re thinking of a balcony!”
“Oh, am I?” sighed Phil, “Shame.”
I have never had a gift for maths. A career associated with it, even a brief one, was a bit of an odd-step.
When I was at school, the maths teacher called on me to solve an equation once. She never did it again. Frankly, I couldn’t really follow the example, so solving an equation, any equation, was a little beyond me. I gave an answer of ‘seven’, which in all honesty, I plucked from the air. When that was shockingly incorrect, I changed my answer to ‘blue’.
I’m no mathematician.
My only ability with numbers can be told in a single paragraph.
Years ago, I totally blew the mind of a fellow barman by telling him he could take anybody’s year of birth, and his own, and when he was the age of their year of birth, they would be the age of his. For example, I was born in 1982. The barman was born in 1970. When I’m 70 years old, he’ll be 82. It works every which way. Forwards, backwards, it makes no difference.
He was agog. This was after a couple of pints, but still, I took the compliment.
A friend of mine fancied he knew a bit about electrics and, after a brief conversation with me about downlighters, decided to fit new transformers in his drinking buddy’s kitchen. Having mixed up the primary and secondary windings, he fitted the transformers backwards, and blew up the lighting circuit.
Another chap I wound up working for had been told by an electrician that his outdoor security light was dead. He managed to interpret that as – the circuit was dead. It wasn’t.
On his own, in the heaving-bosom summer of 2014, bright blue sky alive with ladybirds, he cut the cable as close to the brickwork as the clippers would fit. He called me that evening. I fished the cable out, secured it, fitted a new light and was invited to a gig in the back garden, performed by a guitarist with nails like Donovan.
Most of us have a friend who can guess his way through handyman jobs, but that doesn’t mean we should let him.