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COMING BACK TO LIFE



Two weeks with no hot water or central heating takes a heavy toll. It’s a demoralising state of affairs. At one point, I even speculate how many kettles I would need to boil before I could fill the bath to a reasonable level. It’s a preposterous thought, and I dismiss the idea outright. Then I idly wonder whether I should heat some pans of water on the stove. Stop that right now! Instead, I fill the kettle and make do with washing myself in the sink. The tingling sensation of the hot, soapy water is marvellous, and I allow my hands to luxuriate in it for a while before taking them out and drying them with a towel. The rest of me can stay dirty. After all, that’s what I am – a member of the great unwashed. I’m simply living up to my name.

Taking things for granted is what we tend to do. So when we’re deprived of something essential to life, the experience soon grinds us down. I’m reminded of my years of poverty in Birmingham after graduation in the 1980s. That’s not an exaggeration. By all the measures you care to employ, I was poor – what would now be termed a denizen of the underclass. I had no job, no savings, and no motorcar; my accommodation had no central heating, no double-glazing, no telephone, no washing machine, not even a vacuum cleaner. Under Thatcherism, I had no hope, and so it went on, year after miserable year.

My bedsit was a curious anomaly. In one wall, there was an alcove with two bunk beds, screened by a shabby curtain, and with a ladder to reach the top bunk. Why anyone would want to rent such a property was a mystery – perhaps only a single parent and child might have found the sleeping arrangements suitable to their needs. Because it was situated in the attic space, it was the sort of place that felt provisional, an afterthought. The single-glazed window looking down into Endwood Court Road had a row of rectangular ventilation slats at the top, which meant there was always a draught, even when they were closed.

The previous tenant had built a glazed partition between the living room and the rest of the bedsit, the wooden frame finished off with a coat of eggshell blue paint. It even had a separate door, though it was often difficult to open and close. That’s because wood swells and contracts depending on the ambient temperature. In today’s health and safety conscious climate, I’m sure it wouldn’t have passed muster – the partition wasn’t glazed with safety glass. But that was just one of the issues at play here – most worrying of all was the fact there was no fire escape. But the thought of perishing in a conflagration wasn’t going to keep me awake at night – much more likely to do that was the extreme cold, evidenced by my breath misting the air and the droplets of condensation that formed on the windowpane.

Although the structural modification carried out by the previous tenant helped to cut down on draughts, in winter I was effectively confined within a living room that didn’t live up to its name, especially when the source of heating was a pathetically inadequate two-bar electric fire. Any heat generated by the fire inevitably leaked out through the windows, the walls, and the uninsulated roof space. One day I decided to buy one of those cheap plastic thermometers that gardeners use in their greenhouses. It was to conduct an experiment, though I already knew what the outcome would be. With the fire on maximum, the temperature struggled to reach a chilly 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Rather than incur an enormous electric bill, with nothing to show for it, I turned the fire off. It was neither use nor ornament.

During the day, I’d walk into the city centre and head for Birmingham Central Library, located in the appropriately named Paradise Circus. Here it was easy to keep warm, and to while away the hours I’d read obscure books about Manichaeism and Middle Eastern pillar saints like Simeon Stylites, he of the Tennyson poem. However, unlike those Christian ascetics, I certainly didn’t subscribe to the mistaken view that mortification of my body would be good for my soul. I’d only return home at nine o’clock after the library closed. Then it was time for bed.

Once the plumber has replaced the cause of all my woe – the faulty fan assembly in my condensing boiler – he effortlessly coaxes the central heating system back to life and leaves behind the offending piece of equipment. This inoffensive-looking hunk of silver metal has the appearance of a nautilus when viewed from the side with its projecting arm at an angle of forty-five degrees and its printed circuit board attached. The date of manufacture is on a label attached to the unit – it reads 12 March 2003. Eighteen years it chugged merrily away before stuttering to a halt. Now it’s only fit for the scrapyard.

An hour later, the bath is full of hot water, and the radiators are in their element. That’s all it takes to restore your spirits. It’s not much to ask, is it? To be warm. Surely that’s a basic right, along with having enough food to eat. You must have both. It’s not a case of one or the other. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.