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9 January 2019

I like to think that the cold is character-building. But what kind of character does it build?

Hands up those of you who live halfway up Scotland and don’t have central heating? Well, that’s sorted the men from the boys.

By Nicholas Lezard

I look out of the window and for the first time in ages I see buildings: the elegant Victorian terraces of Islington, beneath a crisp blue sky. Also, I am not freezing. That’s new.

Actually, when I awake in the MacHovel I am not, strictly speaking, freezing, because I will have gone to bed under a heavy duvet fairly warmly dressed. It’s only when I get out of bed that things get chilly.

Hands up all of you who don’t have central heating? Hmm, not many of you. Now, hands up those of you who live halfway up Scotland and don’t have central heating? Well, that’s sorted the men from the boys, hasn’t it?

Cold, I think, is something that only the homeless experience these days. To be without a system of radiators implies either misfortune, eccentricity, or malevolent human intention, such as – to pluck an example from the icy air – the previous inhabitants removing all the radiators from the home they had occupied.

Actually, I shouldn’t exaggerate. I have three radiators that run off the wood-fired stove that heats the living room, although during a real cold snap I use the word “heats” only in its most relative term. When you have been feeding logs by the dozen into the stove’s maw for six hours and your breath still steams, you wonder if there shouldn’t be another word – one thinks of the almost total cold of outer space, that by some miracle, some leftover radiation from the universe’s primal explosion, manages to hover just a fraction of a degree above absolute zero.

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The radiators that run off the stove are uselessly placed: one in the hall, one in the kitchen, which is so cold I put things in the fridge to stop them from freezing, and one in a little annexe of the kitchen which warms up nothing but the logs that are kept there. (There is also a window that doesn’t shut in this little box-room, which doesn’t help matters much.) The interesting thing about these radiators is that the colder the ambient temperature, the longer they take to heat up; some evenings they don’t heat up at all.

I like to think this is character-forming, as are the occasional power cuts. But what kind of character does it form? To revert to the 19th century or earlier may mean to embrace a more barbaric code, one that I have been immersing myself in, in between power cuts, thanks to a subscription to Amazon Prime. I’ve become obsessed by the TV series Outlander, in which Caitriona Balfe plays a nurse transported, via some spooky standing stones, from 1946 to mid-18th-century Scotland. Well, these things happen.

I think I’ve mentioned before my curious predilection for immersing myself, in art, in the kind of landscape I can immerse myself in simply by going out the door. With Outlander, this is getting ridiculous. On the screen of my laptop, I see Highland landscapes, or feudal lairds with extravagant beards eating steaming haunches of venison in ancient castles. I can get that by walking three hundred yards down the lane. The only significant difference that I can see is that there’s a lot more sex in Outlander than there is in my neck of the woods, not that I’m going to do a survey or anything. One goes by the evidence available. Also, there are fewer redcoats about, and if there is any anti-English sentiment I have yet to experience it. Also everyone’s manners are better and women are treated with considerably more respect.

Otherwise I might as well, for much of the time, have been transported back to a harsher, but perhaps more honest age. I get my fuel from Chris, the transplanted Devonian who does all the odd jobs here; I worked out that, until my landlady took pity on me, I was spending more money on wood than I was on wine. Yes, read that again. On wine.

So evenings are spent hauling logs from kitchen to stove and trying to keep the stove lit. (When it is running well, the flames lick its roof and the glass door in the most mesmerising way, almost as mesmerising as Caitriona Balfe’s performance in Outlander.) Kindling is recovered from the floor of the woodshed, which is a large unconverted barn in which I have yet to see anything nasty apart from myself. I imagine the spectacle of a middle-aged man stooping to retrieve splinters of wood and putting them in an old grain sack could be quite affecting, in a Good-King-Wenceslasy kind of way.

It is all a long way from Islington, where I am currently lodging at my daughter’s boyfriend’s place (it is her birthday). It’s cold here too, today, but everywhere there are organic supermarkets, weirdo art galleries and places selling 1974 Subbuteo sets in an ironic way. I had one of those once, and as I stared at it I felt like a victim of time’s own irony itself. 

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This article appears in the 09 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown