Sunday Telegraph, March 2013

My mum had a problem with her lavatory cistern last week. “Ballcock?” I said. “Probably,” she replied. Evidently, there was a bit of an overflow issue, which has now been put right by a professional, but it was a struggle for me not to jump in the car and go to look at it for myself. Despite having no training in plumbing whatsoever, I take such pride in my understanding of the simple ballcock mechanism that I sometimes think that, in a former life, I invented it. Years ago, in the 1990s, when I was reviewing television for a living, I was regularly thrilled by the programmes made by the boffin Adam Hart-Davis, as he demonstrated the scientific principles by which, for example, they made lead shot in the Middle Ages by dropping heated lead from tall towers into buckets of water far below (droplets always turn into regular spheres on the way down). Did he likewise construct a simple lavatory tank-fill valve apparatus using a pig’s bladder on a stick? Actually, I think he didn’t. Instead (it’s coming back to me), I believe he demonstrated the virtues of a Victorian “earth box”, arguing that this was the better method of dealing with human waste! Damn. This is the way my brain works nowadays, of course. I can remember a popular scientist’s avant-garde lavatory-design preferences from twenty years ago, but ask me what day it is, and I can’t tell you.

Now, I have two stories of ballcock intervention on my part, so I hope you are sitting comfortably. The first is a story of triumph, and took place just before people in general had mobile phones (which is significant). I returned one day from holiday to find that, the day before, an old porcelain cistern in the downstairs loo had spontaneously cracked from top to bottom and was letting out water. My adorable cleaning man had discovered the leak on a routine visit, but had not been able to contact me. The water had continued to leak, and he had arranged some buckets, but otherwise hadn’t known what to do. Let me repeat that: He had not known what to do to stop the water from continuing to fill the cistern! He was an excellent musician, incidentally; he is now a terrific composer. And to be fair, expertise in plumbing had never been part of his cleaning-man remit when I hired him. However, I was a little shocked that he hadn’t considered doing what I did, which was to shove a couple of cans of cat food (the small ones) under the ballcock float, thus keeping it propped up and causing the sealing of the fill valve. (Plumbers subsequently told me that this actually wasn’t the smartest solution, but I refused to listen. I thought it was improvisational genius.)

The second story concerns less of a triumph, but I offer it anyway as a warning to others. I was on the homeward leg of a long book-promotion tour in America, and had flown to Washington DC for an event at the famous bookstore, Politics and Prose. Book tours are not leisurely affairs. The day before, I had been in Oxford, Mississippi (but staying in Memphis, Tennessee); next day I would be in Boston. Timings were all very tight. After check-in at this Washington hotel, for example, I would be shooting off to a radio station in less than half an hour. For three weeks, I had been presenting a calm façade, but it was wearing thin. So I went to my room, and while I was impatiently waiting for my bags to arrive, I heard from the bathroom the tell-tale sound of water trickling into a cistern due to an imperfectly sealed fill valve. “Well, I’m not putting up with that!” I said. I marched into the bathroom, took the lid off the cistern, pulled smartly on the ballcock float – and it came off in my hand.

I see from the internet that many lavatories now utilise something called a “concentric float valve” as opposed to the “side-float” design. I am very, very depressed by this news, because:


  1. a) why won’t people just leave well alone?
  2. b) there isn’t room in my head for different lavatory technology
  3. c) what day is it, anyway? Oh look, it’s started raining.


The cats never knew the use I’d put their cans of food to, by the way. I thought it for the best.

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