Lionel Shriver

How to avoid heating your house

How to avoid heating your house
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Spring commonly augers a quickening warmth, but for Britons this year the season coincides with a chilling marker: a 54 per cent rise in the energy price cap, bringing the average annual bill to nearly £2,000. By the next increase this autumn, that average will soar to £3,000. Thus what was, until recently, my annoying eccentricity could soon become standard practice: refusal to switch on the heating.

Our gas-fired combi boiler functions pretty much as a water heater only. Above our thermometer downstairs I’ve taped a snipped-out Evening Standard headline, ‘Couple die in freezing home’. The joke wore off long ago. My husband is a moderate, civilised person. This perverse policy of turning the thermostat not down but off is all my fault.

My prescient cultivation of a lifestyle that many Europeans will shortly have to embrace, like it or not, isn’t motivated by environmental fervour. I’m cheap. I revere hardiness. A Protestant upbringing has instilled the confused impression that suffering ennobles. I’m seduced by the rational efficiency of bundling up individual occupants rather than warming all the spaces they traverse.

Most of all, I’ve never recovered from my disappointment that, in defiance of the installers’ grand promises in 2011, our wood-burning stove 1) heats barely more than the sitting room, and even there only some; and 2) makes no economic sense (the wood costs a fortune). Rather than resign myself that we simply bought a middle-class luxury good with exorbitant running costs, I pretend that a small woodstove only fired up mid-evening suffices for our house-wide winter needs all day long. To service my denial, I subject countless others – visitors, tradesmen, not least of all my husband – to what doctors euphemistically dub ‘discomfort’.

For me, the recommendation that we all turn our thermostats down by one degree – maybe to as low as 19°C? – is hilarious. Throughout this year’s relatively mild winter, the temperature in our house routinely sat at 11°C; 13°C qualified as toasty. During that one cold snap in January, when the indoor temp got down to 7°C, I was greatly relieved my husband was abroad. (However tolerant, he’d have flown into a rage.) This winter, we triggered the central heating thrice, each time for guests. I switched off the system the moment they left.

Because I’ve been living as many of you will soon be living, allow the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to provide a glimpse of your future.

Customary dress: thermals top and bottom, double socks, stained knockoff Ugg boots. Heavy jeans, cashmere jumper. Silk scarf, jaunty woollen hat. I’ve a generous selection of indoor coats, lined, some below the knee, though my current favourite is a thick fake-shearling bomber jacket with a high sheepy collar. Assuming I’m bats, delivery men beat a hasty retreat, though at least the nutter look scares off the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Unfortunately, in this get-up I also come across as a lunatic in Zoom interviews.

I’ve learned to type in gloves. Alas, I wore one bright, stripy pair so constantly that I developed a violent wool allergy specific to my hands, obliging me to prefer less cosy synthetics – preferably thin enough that the pinkie doesn’t keep inadvertently activating the caps lock. Had I devoted the time I’ve squandered shopping for the perfect touchscreen gloves online to writing for the Daily Mail instead, I’d have financed our central heating for a year, even with that 54 per cent price hike.

As many of you will soon discover, the body gripes at first, but eventually becomes so accustomed to being cold that it gives up complaining. I’m convinced that a nippy temperature in winter is good for one’s health. Yet I glommed on to this theory only after imposing my barbaric frugality, and any opinion that’s too convenient is suspect.

Advantages aside from knee-high energy bills: freezing burns calories (actively shivering burns calories like nobody’s business) and keeps the weight down. Cut flowers remain preternaturally perky. Unrefrigerated foodstuffs last for weeks. A stew left on the counter overnight won’t spoil. Although tough to roll out at first, pastry never falls apart. Once you finally warm up (give it a good 15 minutes), sleeping in an icy bedroom is exquisite, less like humdrum slumber than hallucinogenic hibernation. As for the emotional effect of this monastic abstinence, you might go for a sumptuous self-pity, though I personally prefer smugness. Liberation from the tyranny of British Gas fosters a satisfying spite.

Granted, there are downsides. A frigid house is damp and invites mould. The shower billows, and condensation ruins your paintwork. Frozen food takes days to defrost; yeast doughs won’t prove; meals go stone cold by the time you pull up your chair. Sleep may be intoxicating, but the odious matter of getting out of bed can present itself as insurmountable.

Oh, and unless they’ve also moved to Siberia-upon-Thames, prepare for fewer friends. The temperature in our house is so infamous that some companions will only meet in restaurants (so much for economising). The few who brave our hospitality arrive in heavy coats that they wear through dinner, since even if I’ve relented, the boiler won’t have boosted the temp above 15°C by the time they leave. As one spouse is bound to be more enthusiastic about this ceaseless camping trip than the other, the marital atmosphere can grow glacial, too. (Our biggest recent fights have been over the central heating.) While resorting to radiators at least during serious cold snaps would be sensible, it’s easy to get trapped in a mindset whereby switching on the heating like a normal person feels like defeat.

A minor postscript. The frail, elderly and infirm, anyone with high blood pressure or circulatory conditions and families with infants or delicate children may have a tiny problem getting with the Arctic programme. So they’d all better go make thousands more pounds per year pronto, or write themselves off as the collateral damage of policies far more idiotic than my boiler boycott: Covid lockdowns, decades of shortsighted see-no-evil UK energy planning – or lack of planning – and the vain posturing of net zero.