Return to primitive living proves educational

Thu, Dec 30, 2010, 00:00

Comforts of home went out the window in the cold spell when the car, water and heat broke

YES, WELL. When I said 2010 was the Year of Lowered Expectations, I didn’t mean that low.

I meant being grateful for one holiday in the year instead of two. I meant having card nights at home instead of going out to restaurants.

I did not mean that at 9.30am, it would still be -15 degrees and our domestic infrastructure would collapse all round us. First a cable in the car snapped when the gear box froze. Then the water went. Finally, the heat seized up.

My husband was lighting the fire before daylight to try and warm the place up. Then he’d spend two hours in the shed cursing at the machinery, strategically placing blow heaters and applying the hair dryer to suspected vulnerable spots.

Barrels of water had to be transferred between houses and you really forget how heavy water is. I had to boil it in saucepans to clean the dishes. Between sloshing buckets around in the freezing cold and then washing up in hot water, these delicate hands were raw.

I’m sure I’ve done myself a physiological injury from trying not to use the loo because flushing it would waste vital supplies. On Christmas Eve we went up to Johnstown House, our local hotel, which has a pool and spa for a wash. It was like a Roman bath house with several locals doing the same thing.

It took me two days to remember how we coped with the cold before the miracle of oil-fired central heating. When I was going to school I’d leave my clothes on a rack over the range in the kitchen, which would be left on all night. In winter there would regularly be frost on the inside of bedroom windows, so you would dash down to the kitchen and dress there. Then I remembered the knack of changing for bed in the sitting room in front of the fire after you had let your pyjamas warm up.

My husband stopped changing altogether and just got into bed in his clothes. The boys wore two pairs of socks, fleeces and their little dressing gowns, which to date had been purely decorative items. My mother reminded me that when we were babies we wore more clothes at night than we did in the day.

As I grew more and more appalled at the primitive condition into which we had descended I was equally dismayed to acknowledge how recently we lived this life.

Well into the 1980s we got hot water from a back boiler off a fire. An immersion heater was installed at some point but using it was generally considered out of the question since it was known to use sinful amounts of electricity. It broke at some point anyway and that was that. If you wanted a bath, you started by going out to the shed and chopping sticks.

It’s so recent! That’s what I kept thinking. People talk about going back to the 1980s, and I decided there and then, I am never going back. I don’t care what it takes. Oil is not evil; it’s amazing. Long live the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and whatever caverns under the sea must be drilled to preserve us from the labour and dirt of solid fuel fires.

And as for those people who say that children are sicker because their bedrooms are over-heated. My children are never sick and within three days of enduring our freezing house, we had all come down with awful coughs and colds. The only upside was that just like poorer times, we fell back on neighbourly inter-dependency, which was a heart-warming experience.

By Day Six I’d had enough and abandoned all pretensions to stoicism. Down to my last pair of clean knickers, I took to the bed with two hot water bottles and refused to get up until the 21st century returned. Fortunately that was the day of the thaw and, even more fortunately, everything worked once the ice had melted.

Which brings me to the remarkable level of national and domestic ignorance on matters plumbing. As we looked haplessly at various pipes that led in seemingly random directions, we realised we had no idea how anything actually worked. Different taps use different sources of water. There were two tanks in the attic. What purpose did the second one serve? Was it inevitable that the heat would go without water or was that system suffering from an independent problem?

A glance at the papers shows we were not alone. For instance, headlines repeatedly insisted that burst water pipes were caused by the thaw. The thaw did not cause the pipes to burst. When the water froze and expanded that burst the pipes, but you only found out about it after the thaw.

As corporations and governments say after a disaster: Lessons Must be Learned. The first lesson is that every house should have an as-built drawing of their plumbing system so we can diagnose problems and possibly solve them.

Then we have to figure out how much to invest in insulation.That’s both an individual and local government issue.

To answer it we need to know if 17 below was a freak or should we expect this again? Knowing the future: the necessity increases with the desperation of our circumstances and reminds us that for all our progress, a primitive existence hovers all too closely.