Revisiting boots and briquettes

Jan 1st, 2011 | By | Category: Ireland

A wet and overcast New Year’s Day in the Irish Midlands prompts an early lighting of the fire in the rambling 18th Century house in which we live.  Carrying a bale of peat briquettes in from outside brought memories of winter four years ago, the last time we had lived in a house with an open fire. It had  illustrated how the rich could always live more cheaply than the poor.

My son had read me an extract from a Terry Pratchett novel; it described how the rich person would be able to afford a fifty dollar pair of boots. The boots would last ten years and the rich person would have warm and dry feet. The poor person, by contrast, never had enough money to buy a fifty dollar pair of boots, instead a ten dollar pair would be bought, these would be of poor quality, would leave the person with cold and wet feet and they would wear out after a year. The poor person would spend twice as much money on boots as the rich person and would never be warm and dry.

Terry Pratchett’s boots were a lesson in household management. We were living in temporary accommodation, a six bedroomed house built in 1876. There was no double glazing, no insulation and every time the wind blew the sash windows rattle and the curtains ballooned outwards. We took to keeping shutters closed day and night in the hope of keeping out draughts.

The gas bill for two months’ heating, a couple of hours each morning and three each evening in some of the rooms, was €462, about €8 a day. Deciding it might be cheaper just to light a fire in our living room, we bought logs and peat briquettes and bags of coal on a number of occasions. A bale of briquettes cost over €4 and heated the living room, just one room, for an evening.

Putting briquettes and logs into the boot of the car one afternoon, it didn’t take long to calculate that it would be cheaper simply to turn on the central heating. Why on earth had I seen people of obviously limited means buying briquettes and logs?

Presumably the answer lies in Terry Pratchett’s boot story, they hadn’t the money to afford central heating; or were afraid of running up bills they could not manage; or, if they had prepay meters, believed that they were saving money by burning lumps of carbon in their fireplace.

Jesus once said that we have the poor with us always. Had he lived in northern Europe he might have added that they would not only be poor, but they would also be cold, because we have never equipped them to be able to live cheaply.

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