Driving from Portlaoise to Dublin yesterday, the mountains on the southern skyline were still covered in snow. Still not having mastered the geography of the south-east of Ireland, it took a while to figure out that they must have been the western side of the Wicklow mountains. Hastening back to the gentler climes of south Co Dublin, the thought occurred that next winter would be one lived in Kilkenny, away from the warming influence of the Irish Sea, in an 18th Century house.
Three winters ago, while our new Rectory was being built, we spent a year in a six bedroomed house built in 1876. There was no double glazing, no insulation and every time the wind blew the sash windows rattled and the curtains ballooned outwards. We took to keeping the shutters closed day and night in the hope of keeping out draughts.
It was the writings of Terry Pratchett that taught us the economics of warmth. In one of his books, he 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. Over ten years, the poor person would spend twice as much money on boots as the rich person and would never be warm and dry.
In that winter three years ago, our 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.
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 lay in Terry Pratchett’s boot story, they hadn’t the money to afford central heating; were afraid of running up bills they couldn’t manage; or, if they had prepay meters, believed that they were saving money by burning logs or coal or briquettes.
Jesus of Nazareth 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 had never equipped them to be able to live cheaply.
Pratchett’s lesson will be remembered before the cold sets in next winter.