Saturday, 8 June 2013


      The downstairs lavatory became blocked a few years ago. I tried the plunger on it, without success and followed this by the addition of numerous proprietary products guaranteed to clear blockages, which gave the same results. I’d try these things then flush it. Each time the water in the bowl would rise ominously and watching it was like witnessing a volcano erupting, knowing the larva was going to engulf you but being unable to escape. All the invocations to ‘get down you bugger’ proved as futile as the industrial strength laxatives we’d tried on it, and I spent a lot of time mopping up. Having started work on this project wearing house shoes I ended up in wellies. I finally recognised the futility of working on it from the toilet end and decided the sewage pipe was the problem – there must have been a collapse or something. There was one of these manhole grids in the front garden and this, I decided, was where I should be focusing my activities.

      I knew a bit about manholes from an experience in a previous house: the contents from next door’s toilet had made their way down a pipe which ran underground along the back of our house before reaching a junction, accessible by a manhole. At this point it joined our effluent to that of next door's, and it all flowed into a larger pipe which took it to the main sewer. There was something of philosophy about it – the river of life flowing to the sea of eternity, and all that. Anyway, the bloke next door came round one day and asked if he could look down our manhole, as they were having some trouble with their flush. I went out with him and we managed to lift the lid, using my garden fork.

      “Right ,” said the neighbour, whose name was Eric, “now we need to do a test. What colour is your toilet paper?” This was a subject I hadn’t given much consideration to because whatever pastel shade it happened to be didn’t have much relevance to the actual use of the stuff. No doubt rich people who can afford paper which matches the bathroom décor will look at this differently, but we just got the cheapest, so I had to go in and look.

      “Pink,” I said, on returning.

      “Good,” he beamed, “ours is blue.”

      I wasn’t sure whether this was an indication of Tory leanings, so I said nothing but decided to treat him with caution.

      “Now, you go in and flush some paper down and I’ll do the same, then we’ll be able to tell which is our inlet and which is yours.”

      At this point I felt I must be missing something. It seemed to me that the inlet entering from the direction of our house must be ours and the one from his direction would be his. However I’m not a very confident person, so assumed he must know something I didn’t. Accordingly we both went in to our respective houses and flushed toilet paper down the loo, then rushed outside to see the results. Nothing.

      “We weren’t quick enough,” said Eric. “It had gone before we got back. We’d better try again and run faster.”

     “Hang on,” I said, after the third failure, “why don’t I get my wife to flush some down while I wait here and watch. You get Cynthia to do the same and we both stay here.” There may be a Guiness Book of Records potential in this sort of thing but the thought of breaking my neck coming down stairs to view lavatory paper didn’t have great appeal.

      He looked at me admiringly. Obviously I had shot up in his estimation:

      “Great idea,”he said.

     And so it was that we were both standing looking down the hole in the back garden when, at a shouted command, our respective wives both flushed the toilet at the same time.

       Amazingly, the blue paper came down the pipe exit leading from the direction of his house and the pink came from the one leading in the direction of ours. Both were flowing freely, so any problem must have cleared itself.

      It was around this time that I began to suspect Eric of having a bit of a drain fetish. He would begin to appear at different times, asking permission to lift the manhole cover so that he could check the freedom of flow. It seems they were always having problems with it and he would spend long periods gazing down the hole, while shouting instructions to the long suffering Cynthia about when to flush. It was getting to the point where I was wary of using the toilet in case Malcolm was into deciding who had made what contribution to the flow. I was getting paranoid to the extent that I got my wife to buy blue paper in order to stump him.  Jed, the next door neighbour in the other direction, a bloke with a blunt northern outlook, referred to him as ‘Eric the Drain’. This became embarrassing when my seven year old son, who was one day playing in the front garden, saw Eric coming and bellowed ‘Dad, Eric. the Drain is here’ in a voice which probably loosened a few slates. The only people not embarrassed by this were the seven year old son and Eric, who was either deaf or too immersed in sewage considerations to notice.

      The drain viewing was becoming tiresome, interrupting meals and television viewing. However,when he got to the irritating stage of going in our back garden and lifting the lid without asking us, I happened to mention it to Jed. He went away to think about it and returned the following day, grinning maliciously:

      “I’ll teach the bugger,” he said in his broad Oldham accent, “revenge is at hand mate.” This was a somewhat obscure pun which I didn’t recognise until he quickly reappeared from a visit back to his own house, brandishing a  flesh-coloured rubber glove. He proceeded to partially inflate it, then he tied the end and inserted it into an old stocking stuffed with paper, so that it looked like a hand projecting from a sleeve. The next step was to create a sort of trestle, using a coat-hanger. After a lot of smelly messing about, this was successfully inserted into the large main drain outlet, leaving room for a free flow of sewage underneath. Viewed from above, it looked pretty realistic – a disembodied arm, suggesting a murderer’s failed attempt at disposal. Then we waited, expecting Eric to come to the door, laughing at our jolly jape. It didn’t happen. Eric was  a serious type liable to miss a humorous point, so I’m not sure how he interpreted the hand. However, the drain suddenly lost its fascination and he never mentioned it again. Soon afterwards, they moved.

     Anyway the problem with the downstairs toilet was at our new house and this time the manhole cover was, as I mentioned, in the front garden. When I flushed the loo nothing came through, despite repeated attempts, so I came to the conclusion that the pipe leading to it had collapsed. The logical thing to do was send for help but, as finances were a bit tight, I decided to dig along the line of the pipe, starting from the manhole outlet, with a view to replacing any damaged sections. The drain was fairly deep at the outlet but would obviously get less so the closer I got to the toilet. It is surprising  the amount of soil you need to remove just to reach a small effluent pipe. At one point I was at the bottom of what was rapidly becoming a major excavation when a woman’s voice caused me to stick my head up over the bank of soil:

      “World War One making a revival, then?” It was Monica, our next-door neighbour. I must have look blank because she followed up with “trenches”, indicating the fifteen foot ditch I’d made. She was leaning on the wall with Brenda the neighbour from the other side. For some reason they seemed to find my exploits humorous and giggled at their witty comments. It was amazing how they always managed to appear when I was undertaking a major project. Anyway, I made some inane response, wishing they’d sod off, then continued my dig to the accompaniment of more hilarious statements about panzers coming down the road. There was also a reference to how they were looking forward to the poppies. They were obviously unaware that there were no panzers in World War One but I resisted pointing this out and contented myself with the satisfaction I got from their display of ignorance. I did briefly wonder about the effect of sticking the hosepipe up the sewage outlet from Monica’s house, which entered our manhole, and turning it on full blast – give her a taste of cold bidet when least expected -  but I already had enough to contend with. Some things are best left as blissful contemplation.

     The pipe seemed intact for the full length of the lawn, right to the spot where it disappeared under the drive. At this point I scratched my head. Digging the drive up would be a big job, but I’d got this far and the thought of paying someone to do it gave me added impetus. Borrowing a sledge hammer from a friend, I got stuck in. After about three hours and the loss of a couple of stone, I managed to break up the concrete sufficiently to dig down to the still maddeningly undamaged pipe. I got a bad feeling when it became obvious that it was heading past the end of our house and was, in fact, wending its cheerfully intact way under the fence into next door’s garden. Wrong pipe.

      As this gruesome truth was becoming apparent another problem occurred: my wife came out to use the car, which happened to be in a garage now separated from the street by a trench demarking the route of next-door’s sewage drain. I’d forgotten about the car. She stood for a few moments with arms crossed, contemplating the devastation in that maddeningly serene way of hers:

     “I think the blocked pipe goes straight into the street sewer,” she observed helpfully. This was one of those occasions when ‘helpfully’ equated to ‘me being ready to kill someone’, and I glared at Brenda, still leaning on the wall. Monica appeared to have slid down it during the course of some sort of convulsion.

      My wife doesn’t swear, but she managed to convey the impression that I was pretty unpopular and gave  instructions that the drive was to be replaced immediately, re-establishing communication between  car and   outside world.

     It turned out my wife was right:  the drain from the downstairs toilet went straight out to the main sewer, never passing anywhere near the manhole in the front garden. Dyno-Rod came out and cleared it, after we’d taken out a second mortgage. The drive never fully recovered.

      Naturally, when having read this, your thoughts turn to lavatories and 'lavatory' easily metamorphoses into 'Lavatera', that valuable decorative shrub sometimes confusingly referred to as Mallow. The confusion arises because the two plants are closely related and the flowers are similar. The alternative common name 'tree mallow' more accurately describes Lavatera, because it tends towards woodiness and has greater vigour. Mine was bought as Lavatera Barnsley, which has white flowers ageing to pink. It is vigorous, growing to 6ft by 6ft in a season, when cut hard back in spring. It is common and for good reason - it is idiot proof. Not only does it flower throughout summer but softwood cuttings, taken in early summer, root with consummate ease. 
Lavatera 'Barnsley'

      And this brings me to my usual ramp about plant snobbery, these people who turn their noses up at subjects simply because a lot of people have them. Gardening isn't just about growing rarities (many of which wouldn't be given house room if they weren't rare) - its about displaying plants to their best effect, positioned so that they contrast pleasingly with their neighbours.

       'Fashion' in gardening is another opportunity for a ramp: for God's sake, the garden should be what you want it to be, what makes you happy when you look at it, not what some t.v. guru suggests is the right thing. In a way, a garden is an expression of your art and if other people don't like it, sod 'em. There are general rules that help create pleasing effects but they aren't carved in stone. I remember studying a colour wheel at college: it showed what shades fitted with others and I thought it must be something  no gardener could do without until I saw a field of wildflowers which nature had put together without the use of one. 

      Humour is another aspect that shouldn't be overlooked. If planting up a lavatory bowl is something that brings a smile, then it has the ultimate qualification for your garden. What other people consider to beautiful or interesting to them is fine, just remember that doing your own thing is the course that brings the most satisfaction. 


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