Saturday, October 28, 2006

Cold Comfort

My greatest fear – way beyond being eaten by a crocodile or choking on a ham sandwich - is dying of cold. This is the main reason I’m moving to the tropics. Even then I’m going to insist on living in a place with a pot-bellied stove. They’re very efficient at keeping open-plan dwellings warm. There’s no central heating in the tropics unfortunately. One of the things I’ll really miss about my flat is that it's Bermuda all year round in my little piece of Hackney. I even have seagulls, well actually they’re terns but they’re white and grey and land on the water so they could can easily pass for seagulls.

Usually I spend the darkest, coldest months in my spiritual home Noosa Heads, Queensland. From the beginning of October to the end of February is the worst time to be in England. Usually I come back at the end of January. February is a short month anyway and there’s always lots of socialising to do. I usually have to see everyone in the first three days before my tan disappears. Most of it rubs off on the plane in the dry atmosphere. This is the only time of year when people say to me, ‘you look well’, as if they actually mean it.

Having the heating on is the one area of environmental conservation on which I simply won’t compromise. I am immensely proud of the fact that I have only ever spent one winter in Europe in which I was too cold. After a childhood in Sydney, freezing for three solid months of the year, I promised myself, with Scarlett O’Hara like zeal, that I would never get that cold once I was in charge of the room temperature. It is the only promise I made to my child self that I have ever been able to keep.

I know a lot of people who believe that having a cold house is good for you. You learn to ask, ‘will you have the heating on?’, when they invite you to dinner. They usually sigh, ‘yes’, with grumpy resignation and put the gas fire in the lounge on for half an hour to ‘warm up the room’. They switch it off the minute they hand you your first ice cold gin and tonic. I had to purchase NASA approved thermal underwear so that I don’t expire between courses. I also usually take fingerless gloves too as I’ve noticed it’s difficult to butter bread wearing mittens.

When my hardy friends come to my house, they need to strip down to their underwear and throw open all the windows which makes for an interesting dinner party. Of course they would draw the line at frostbite but they honestly do think that a little cold never hurt anyone. I, on the other hand, believe that you are less inclined to reach the heights of erudition of which you know yourself to be capable if your teeth are chattering. Up until now, the coldies have laughed at my inability to acclimatise but now I feel I’ve finally clambered up the slippery slope and planted my feeble little flag on the moral high ground.

Every year, around 25,000 elderly people die in England and Wales because of being too cold. This always seemed to be a mystery as Britain is actually a very warm cold country if you see what I mean, and therein lies the problem. In Russia, Finland and Canada, elderly people don’t seem to die because they’re too cold. The BBC reported today, ‘the coldest city in the world, Yakutsk in east Siberia, has no excess winter deaths, even though temperatures there can drop to minus 49C.’

Very sensibly, someone has finally done some research into why so many elderly people die of cold when it isn’t actually that cold.Professor Bill Keatinge of London’s Queen Mary University reveals, On the whole, the countries that have the mildest winters tend to have a higher mortality than countries with very cold winters. This is because the deaths in winter are not due to massive cold, with people being overwhelmed in their own houses and dying of extreme cold. It's down to quite minor degrees of cold that people were getting every day.’ I knew it!

It seems that low room temperatures make you prone to heart attacks and strokes. According to Prof Keatinge, if your room temperature is lower than 20C you begin to be at risk of death. In genuinely cold countries they can’t be doing with this bracing fresh air mentality and they keep their home fires well stoked. People who have cruel friends or work in chilly basements should start taking a room thermometer to work or next dinner party and suing the Argyll socks off their tormentors.

Patrick Sachon from the Met Office warned ‘In this country, people don't think about what getting cold will do to them because it doesn't kill them immediately. We don't have well insulated houses and we have a culture that believes having a window open to let in lots of fresh air is good for us, even though it is not. People need to realise that cold can kill and they need to keep warm.’

So, there we have it, definitive evidence if ever it were needed. It’s a bit of a shame that it comes just as the energy companies are about to raise their prices to a level that no pensioner could possibly afford. Perhaps they could all move to Yakutsk or the tropics.

Cartoon from www.crh.noaa.gov

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