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20 February 2019

Three months of freezing Scottish winter without a stove – so why are there flies in my bath?

How have they survived record-breaking low temperatures?

By Nicholas Lezard

Yesterday the Improbably Handsome Plumber (as opposed to the Other Plumber) came round and explained to me why my stove wasn’t working.

“Your baffle’s gone, the thermostat isn’t working, and there’s not enough air getting into it. Also…” My mind wandered. It wasn’t as if I was going to be able to do anything about it myself. I picked up some details about how even he wasn’t sure how old the stove was. The burden of his remarks was that I would be resigning myself to spending money on firewood that wasn’t actually heating anything unless you actually sat on the thing.

A friend suggested that I buy a load of remaindered copies of Piers Morgan’s autobiography and burn those instead, an idea that has a certain appeal but is probably not practical and might gunk up the works. But what’s the point? I reply. By the end of February everyone knows that Scotland bursts into radiant, subtropical spring weather.

And yet, I think to myself as I continue my reverie, there are still flies. Why are there flies? In my bedroom? After three months of solid winter? Including record-breaking low temperatures? I was woken up by one the other day, flying around inside the paper lampshade. Bop, bop, bop. I draw the curtain each morning and find a couple of them startled into wakefulness. I don’t keep food in my bedroom so it isn’t putrefaction that attracts them. Unless I’m putrefying. I don’t think so. Perhaps it’s quite the other, some natural personal aroma of delightful sweetness.

I was having a bath that morning – the ambient temperature was above freezing so I felt brave – and one of them just fell into it by my side. It was quite disconcerting. I was reading a fascinating article about Petrarch in the London Review of Books and next thing I know a f––ing fly has fallen in the bath. It’s not really what you want, nor what you expect. Has that ever happened to you before? It’s a new one on me. I tried to scoop it out and return to the quattrocento. Petrarch’s Laura had 11 children and died in 1348 – it’s probable she got caught up in the Black Death – so I shouldn’t grumble. This is assuming she existed at all. There is some debate on the matter, apparently. I am not sure where to stand on this. I do not want to impugn Petrach’s veracity, but I mean, come on, 11 children?

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The plumber finishes his litany of my stove’s failures. What, as Lenin asked, is to be done? There’s nothing much that can be done, he says, except get a new stove. I think of all the wood I’ve chucked into it, at some expense, and think of it all going up – well, going up in smoke. I feel cheated. I have missed out on a warm interior in winter, a feeling that is strangely similar to being cheated out of a sunny summer, either because the weather is rubbish or you’re stuck in an office. I could have been so toasty. And it’s not, I feel, as if I have all that many winters ahead of me.

I dig out the operating manual and hand it to the plumber, who is astonished that I have managed to keep and find it. Quietly, so am I. The quality of paper and typeface suggest that it dates from the 1760s, give or take a decade or so. He photographs a few pages and says he might be able to get parts for it, sounding a lot more optimistic than he was a few minutes before.

Later, I take the manual up for some bedtime reading. It is a Hunter Herald 14 CE V.II multi-fuel central-heating stove, which presumably means I could burn Piers Morgan’s memoirs in it after all. (At first, I misread the “CE” part of its designation as “ICE”.) I crank up the laptop and google the manufacturer and model. Gordon Bennett, they’re still making them. Look, there’s my very stove, on a webpage and everything. I read the blurb.

“As British winters become increasingly unpredictable, we put a high value on economy.” I laugh hollowly. “The Herald 14 burns fuel with minimum waste and maximum output.” Ha, I say to myself. “Don’t want to get up shivering in your pyjamas? This super-efficient stove can be left to glow overnight, providing welcome warmth at dawn.”

My Aunt Fanny it can, I say to myself.

But I do not blame the Hunter Stoves Group, as they call themselves these days. Instead I will blame the previous tenant, whose neglect of the MacHovel is why I call it the MacHovel, and who also – for he was a plumber himself – managed to steal a boiler and a whole central heating system when he vacated the premises, which is, I have to admit, quite impressive.

“Come on,” I ask the flies circling feebly in my room. “Tell me how he did it.” But answer comes there none. 

This article appears in the 20 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State