And so the year wheels through its cycle, the sun shrinks from our skies, the nights draw in and once again it’s that anxious yearly, mid-October ritual: finding out whether the central heating still works. The Hovel is relatively cool in summer and cosy in winter, but it leaks a bit, which is partly my fault, as I like leaving windows open a crack unless it’s really bitter out there.
In ancient, more innocent days, turning the heating on involved little more than flicking a switch. The thermostat was a wall-mounted dial, into which one poked little pins that, as the dial revolved, would tell the thermostat when to turn the heating on and when to turn it off. These pins were fiddly but, on the whole, the heating worked well, and one never heard any complaints about it. This system had persisted for many years: I’d grown up with one in the family home, and although one never really felt sentimental about it, there was a quiet comfort in its unflashy dependability.
Last year, however, the boiler in the Hovel went phut and it was replaced with a new, sleek, state-of-the-art model. This was fine by me: gas boilers are alarming things, when you think about them, and you don’t want something that could go off like a bomb, or that makes noises that scare you when you’re sober.
But this meant that the old thermostat had to be replaced, too, and in place of the familiar dial-and-pin system, two little white boxes – one near the boiler, one on the wall by the kitchen – were installed.
At this point, I can imagine that a few of you are reading this with an increasing sense of horror and disbelief. “Surely, he is not,” you are saying, “going to get a whole column out of a sodding thermostat?”
Yes, he is, for we are not here dealing with an ordinary thermostat, nor even a thermostat as the term used to be understood. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, for what it’s worth . . . the Honeywell DT90E Digital Thermostat, a bold advance in home heating systems that has been carefully designed to perplex the user and make him or her wish that s/he was dead.
I remember when it was installed. The man in overalls asked me when I wanted the heating to go on and off. I told him. He pressed one of the little buttons, or more than one of them, a few times. Strange hieroglyphics appeared, then went away again. “When you want it to go off, you press this one, and when you want it to go on again, you . . .”
You what? I do not know, for at that moment, as soon as I registered that the procedure was going to be too complex for me to follow – let alone remember in a year’s time when the heating had to go on again – my conscious engagement with the world deserted me, and I went off into a flight of fancy about . . . well, I don’t know. Something seasonal about conkers, possibly. Anyway, I had the instructions to consult, safely stored on top of the boiler, should I need them.
Well, you can imagine what happened last week. I tried to turn the heating on and all I managed to do was keep it going for about five minutes before it decided that its buttons hadn’t been pushed in the right order, and it turned itself off in a sulk. I consulted the instruction booklet. This did not make matters any clearer. In fact, it shed a whole new layer of darkness on the business. You see, the box with the LCD display on it has to talk to the box with two inscrutable buttons on it by the boiler, and it does so by radio, or something. Magic. Morphic resonance. Telepathy. And the thermostat’s instructions are written in a way that makes the deciphering of Linear B a piece of cake by comparison. It would appear that you have to hold down different buttons for different periods of time.
In the end, I resorted to insulting Honeywell on a social medium, creating a hashtag, eight of whose 12 letters spelled something rude. (To Honeywell’s credit, the firm replied very nicely with an offer of help even though it became obvious I was losing my mind after I compared their thermostat unfavourably to the controls of the Tardis.)
I remember a while back writing a column in which I teased the writer of the instruction booklet for a toaster. Such cruelty has now been repaid twelvefold. There is something almost biblical about it. Naturally, my 16-year-old boy fixed the boiler in two seconds, but even he’s not sure how he did it.
This article appears in the 25 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage