It's a Thursday afternoon in west London and Daniel Heywood clambers into his van and prepares to embark on an honest few hours' graft. It's a bleak, murky day, but as he sweeps aside some essential accoutrements of his job - sets of valves, surgical gloves, a woolly hat, a crusty mug - to make room for me on the passenger seat, he's buoyant. "Four call- outs in an hour," he says, with some relish.
"It's a pretty good way to make a living. I know a lot of people who work in offices and they're just miserable most of the time. I'm my own boss, and I'm pretty much in control. I'd say I was generally pretty happy." As we drive off, he sits forward, his body hunched over the steering wheel, as if willing the vehicle on to the next pit-stop.
Dan is a plumber - Heywood Heating, Boiler Installation, Service/ Repair, Complete Bathroom Installation - so his expression of job satisfaction should come as no surprise. A recent survey commissioned by the qualifications authority City & Guilds compiled a "contentment list" based on the level of serenity felt in various professions. Hairdressers came top, with two in five "extremely happy" with their work, but plumbers came in fifth at 20 per cent, along with mechanics and builders and just ahead of electricians. Languishing near the bottom were bankers, accountants, lawyers, secretaries and estate agents.
Researchers found that 70 per cent of "vocational" workers felt appreciated at work (compared to 63 per cent of "white-collar" staff), and thought they enjoyed a better social life. In short, plumbers live high on the hog, while some more exalted sectors of the workforce thrash around in the slough of despond.
"Nowadays," says Chris Humphries, the director general of City & Guilds, "true job satisfaction and happiness is about fulfilling your true potential, tapping into your own creativity, and feeling that you can make a difference. More people are swapping their desk- bound jobs for a vocation that enables them to be hands-on, use their brains and be in charge of their destiny."
So I'm swapping my desk-bound job - "media" came in 13th on the list, unaccountably five places ahead of DJs - to see if rolling my sleeves up and brandishing a plunger can make me, albeit temporarily, a happier person. Almost immediately, the inertia of the desk-bound drone is displaced by a mild euphoria. This has something to do with the fact that we're flying over the speed humps as the tools of Dan's trade - toolboxes, ladders, spare U-bends - tumble around in the back of the van with a series of resounding, satisfying crashes.
But it's also something to do with Dan himself. A youthful 25, he's in standard plumber-rig - statutory blue overalls, generous knee pads, Timberland- style boots - and his disposition is, indeed, markedly sunny, helped along by a large head that bobs around like a bird's, a wide and very mobile mouth, and a pair of blue eyes that naturally gravitate towards sardonic glee (whenever his Muttley- esque apprentice, 20-year-old Wesley, is in the vicinity), or arch scepticism (when a harrassed householder is detailing the fraught installation of her combi boiler by "a bunch of Hungarians" and its subsequent vicissitudes).
"It's not nine to five," Dan says in his easy, breezy way, as a particularly lurid jolt sends what sounds like a family of four brandishing canteens of cutlery falling to the floor behind us. "That's the blessing and the curse of it. You get to meet all kinds of people and you never know what's going to be happening from one minute to the next. I start at eight in the morning and try to finish at five, but I might get five or six call-outs a day and I never say no. I get my girlfriend calling me and I'm saying I'll be home in a minute - four hours later she's, like, where are you? And I'm still trying to get rid of an airlock. You can't leave someone with no hot water or heating overnight if you can help it. …