Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Watchdog solves energy crisis

When I first came to Britain in the early 1980s I was astonished to be asked on purchasing my first electrical item, ‘would you like a plug with that?’ I came from the land of what was then referred to as the ‘moulded plug’ in that it was an integral part of any electrical item for the very specific reason that plugs were the things that made the electrical item, well, electrical. A kettle without a viable connection to the hole in the wall which dispensed a continuous supply of refined energy was merely a jug. It was capable of holding water but not necessarily doing anything with that water like render it the optimum temperature for making a cup of tea.

The electric kettle came with absolutely everything else you’d expect in a finished product for sale in a shop. It was neatly wrapped up in a little plastic bag and then crammed into a brightly coloured box with a picture of the product on it and some writing, reaffirming that it was actually a kettle. It said on the box, ‘electric kettle’, so you knew it was not a ginger kitten or a decommissioned battleship.

The box also told you who made it which was handy if you wanted to write and thank them. ‘Dear Mr Morphy Richards, I have just purchased your excellent electric kettle and I am writing to thank you for manufacturing this marvellous product.’ There was always a little booklet telling you, in theory, how to make the product work and a circuit diagram to save you from pulling it apart to see what the inside looked like. It also had a long piece of electrical cable, folded up and secured with those twisty things that came in handy for tying up your bread or making Blue Peter projects. But this cable ended, rather inelegantly, in three little bits of exposed wire.

‘So yes, I would like it to have a plug, and a switch to turn it on and off with a little light to tell you if it’s on or not and I’d like it to make that reassuring bubbling sound and even emit a bit of steam so as I know it’s diligently engaged in the task of boiling water for which I have purchased it, please’. You bought the plug, which cost half as much again as the electric kettle, took it home and realised that you needed two different small screwdrivers to undo the three normal screws and two Phillips head screws holding the plug together. You put a saucepan on the cooker to boil water to make a cup of tea while you decided if you could be bothered schlepping back to the high street to find a hardware shop. By the time you’d had the cup of tea which tasted rather alarmingly of aluminium it had become a matter of honour. It was the only way to spend a Saturday in the 1980s.

At the hardware shop, you asked a man in a brown apron for the right sort of screwdrivers and he looked wistfully at you and led you to a shelf with screwdrivers of all shapes, colours and sizes. You picked out an ordinary screwdriver and a Phillips head screwdriver in yellow and black for no other reason than they were the colours of your favourite football team. You thought about how much you missed home and moulded plugs. If you were smart, you asked the man in the brown apron if there was anything else you needed to buy to get the plug fixed to the electric kettle as you couldn’t face another cup of tea that tasted of aluminium.

This is when you found out that plugs actually had fuses in them and that there were three different types and that kettles required 13amp fuses. It made sense if you thought about it. You bought a packet of each and had just enough left from your weekly salary to buy some milk and tea bags on the way home.

It took quite a few years to master the art of putting plugs onto electrical items as you seemed to need more than the standard issue two hands. It was tricky to get the wire underneath the little plastic bridge held down by the two Phillips head screws. If you took these all the way out, you’d had it. They were almost invisible to the naked eye and if you dropped one, you’d never find it again. You often wondered why they were called Phillips head screws. You knew a Phillip once and his head wasn’t shaped like that. You also had to remember which coloured wires went to which pins. An easy way to remember was bRown = Right and bLue = Left. But the wires were sometimes red and black and you had to experiment. If the kettle blew up, you’d got it wrong.

It is difficult to imagine in these enlightened days, the hardships faced by new immigrants in the last century. Today is the twentieth anniversary of the television programme Watchdog which campaigned to have all electrical items sold with ‘moulded plugs’. They were also instrumental in ensuring that liquids could not be sold without containers. Shop keepers were no longer allowed to just pour milk straight into your shopping basket. They had to, by law, provide a carton with all milk sold. When another BBC television series, The Two Ronnies, exposed that forks were being sold without handles, Watchdog stepped in again and it is now unlawful to sell any utensil without a handle. This has made it a lot easier to eat soup and that alone has made the annual TV licence fee worth every penny. Well done our BBC! Happy birthday Watchdog!


swimmer6foot4 said...

As a "newcomer" i.e. only been here 20 years, you can be forgiven for not knowing why plugs were sold as seperate items to appliances. There is a perfectly rational explanation. The harmonisation of all residential electrical outlets as either two-core bayonet fittings (for lights) or 3-pin square sockets (for power) delivering 240 volts AC current is - believe it or not - relatively new i.e. circa 1960s.

Depending on where you lived (and which power company you subscribed to) there were AC and DC power supplies and all at various voltages and capable of carrying various loads (hence the 3 amp and 13 amp fuses and all the varieties inbetween). Some 3-pin round plugs were small and dainty, some were enormous and chunky.

My house, here in Hackney, is still kitted out with various power outlet sockets - including some which take big brown Bakelite 3-pin round plugs.

Of course now I have modern gadgets such as an adapter (which cost a massive two pounds, twelve shillings and sixpence) to plug my 3-pin square plug into my 3-pin round socket, so there is no need to cut off the moulded plug and fit on a "new" old one.

I know mine is not the only household yet to go fully 3-pin square throughout.

And ... in anwer to your question: stroke and breast!

That's so pants said...

Thanks for clearing that up big guy - proof if it were needed that gender roles are underrated. By the way that wasn't me that asked the question - but I liked the answer...

swimmer6foot4 said...

Oops! It wasn't you, was it! In fact it was the only person who has, to date, left a comment on my blog:
City Slicker asked ... Butterfly or breast?

But thanks, your response has given me the giggles (and hiccups).

In a moment of distractionary activity I have collected together pictures of the various types of power plugs and sockets (i.e. males and females) in my house and popped them on my blog. If only I could apply such gusto and creativity to the work in hand ... ho hum!


Your list of food places (on Hackney Lookout's blog) is fascinating - but demands further comment, surely. As each of my familiar eateries have closed down, one by one, I've whittled my regular eating venues down to just three venues. I've stopped being adventurous (which is sad) and stopped having a reasonable income (which is even more sad).

So how's about some blogging on food in Hackney?


You say: "Maybe my jeans were a tad low slung for a woman of my years yeah, but, did I ask for her opinion?"

So, in your opinion (and I am asking for it) at what age do you consider is it no longer OK to wear low-slung hipsters? I was persuaded to buy some in July (each pair cost £9 19s 9 1/2d) and have rarely worn anything else since; I love them. Last time I wore hipsters before was in 1969-72 (for the disco but not for work). Luckily I kept my original wide hipster belts - and am wearing them again.

That's so pants said...

I'm curious. You write a lot on other people's blogs but none on your own, and ask a lot of questions. Why is that? I like your work though. It makes my eyes go a bit funny - is that supposed to happen? In answer to the jeans question. I am the wrong person to speak authoritively on this question, quite obviously. I am resolutely a mutton dressed as lamb kind of a girl. Arabella Weir said you should never wear something if you wore it first time around but that would eliminate most fashions for me. I quite enjoy finding things I didn't realise I had. This usually happens when I'm looking for my passport. Sometimes I find my passport in the pocket of something I didn't know I had. The joy is doubled if I find them both before I miss a plane.

Anonymous said...

My aunt used to say that London appeared to have had one architect and a thousand electricians.

I remember those plug-changing days well. I remember my ex-ex thinking I was a wimp for making him do it.

PbPhil said...

I was intrigued by the appliances pics on swimmers blog and followed the links to "That's so pant's", what a great piece on the art of attaching a plug.

I do find it irritating that when I buy a product that needs batteries it often doesn;t come with any. Invariably I end up routing round in kitchen drawers looking for batteries and then being amazed at the amount of crap that lives in our kitchen drawers. (3 of us in our family, why do we need 2 hot water bottles one of which is luminous green and furry) and 3 comfies (velvet bags of grain that you heat in the microwave and use in place of a water bottle)

I have on occassion still bought items that don't come with plugs. Mostly these are all package and the man with brown coat is now (unfortunately extinct) As a kid I remember my dad having 2 of these brwn coats in our garage.

On a separate note, is it just my house or are we all being invaded by numerous 4 way extension leads?