Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Fiery Furnaces, or 'On the Boil'

Who said God doesn't have a sense of humo[u]r? One look at the recently discovered jerboa rat and you know He cracks Himself up all the time. I'm convinced, though, that what He really has is a great sense of irony.

Example: We've been having trouble keeping our Oxford house warm. This isn't due to an overarching British design problem (though these exist; more on that later). It's a specific issue with a part in our boiler, the machine that heats the water that runs through the pipes that sluices through our radiators that keep us warm.

In the midst of our back-and-forthing with the plumber here we received a call from the couple who are renting our house back in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. The furnace man had come for his annual inspection. He'd discovered a cracked heat exchanger and had "red flagged" the unit. Carbon monoxide was leaking into the house, which is not the sort of thing that encourages renters to pay their rent on time, since if undiscovered it can, um, kill them. Just try collecting the rent then, what with all the inquests and lawsuits.

Ironic, huh? Our heat goes on the fritz at the same time their heat goes on the fritz. Of course, it isn't that cold here. You folks in Silver Spring, on the other hand, just had snow. The plumber is scheduled to replace our old gas furnace today, so I hope lovely warm air will soon be pumped through our house. Hang in there, Gordon and Leslie! Good thing you brought your dog!

Meanwhile, on our side of the Atlantic, we're waiting for a new part for the boiler. The problem has been this: The radiators go cool but can be coaxed back to life by pressing a red, glowing button on the boiler, a contraption about the size of a mini-fridge that hangs on the wall in a back room. The radiators heat up, but then the boiler stops and the button glows red again:

This has been going on for over a week. Like the characters in "Lost" we are conditioned to push the button repeatedly throughout the day. It may very well be that we are the only things keeping the world from ending.

Every memoir I've read by an American living in the U.K. has included a section on how cold the author found the houses. This is not necessarily our case. Though we're currently having technical difficulties, most of the house is warm enough most of the time. I say "most of the house" because apparently there's a law in England that one bathroom must be kept at a near-freezing temperature. I said "bathroom" but I meant "toilet." British houses invariably have one tiny, stall-like room that has only a toilet. (A toilet that is flushed by pulling a chain that hangs from a tank mounted high on the wall. I think this design is to allow every Englishman to fantasize that he's summoning the butler.)

Our arctic toilet is just across from the boiler, but gets not a BTU of heat from it. If we ever needed a place to hang meat, that's the room. Every English house I've ever been in has a subzero bathroom. We had lunch with some friends last week and I could see my breath in their downstairs loo. It was the same at another friend's house in Oxford's Jericho neighborhood. It takes a brave man to lower his buttocks onto that gelid seat when he expects to see Walt Disney's frozen head leering back at him from a beaker on a shelf.

It isn't just basement toilets that have been reclaimed from disused coal sheds that set the teeth a-chattering. The house I lived in as a teenager, outside Cambridge, had an upstairs loo that you could carve ice in, as if the house's architect had specified it not be insulated.

Why? I can only imagine it's to remind the English of their Druidical past, of how their forebears had to move their bowels while seated on a hollowed out tree stump in a raging gale. All I know is, it's quite bracing.


Candadai Tirumalai said...

The bathrooms I used during my years in Oxford had both a bath and a toilet as well as intermittent and low central heating. So did the toilets in the Bodleian Library. But the toilet in one of the Oxford Colleges thirty years ago was cold, even though it was early summer. The relatively mild winters of southern England can be balanced by its coolish summers.

Anonymous said...

John, there are huge leaf piles all over Woodside/Park/Forest, as the final leaf collection has been delayed by the snow and rain.

So, if necessary, there is short-term fuel available for your tenants.

William said...

During my time at Oxford some 35 years ago, bedsits and other lodgings were heated by electric or gas fires. Most of the single family homes of that era were still heated by single room fires as well, some of them hailing from pre WWI days. I found myself in a constant state of damp chill (being frugal with the shillings needed to feed the meters attached to the room fires) and thus often had to endure pub conversation about how central heating was making Americans soft. One little old dear cornered me at the Dew Drop Inn to warn me that "central heating rots the skin." She did have a lovely complexion despite her advanced age.

Old Lady said...

Fan mail, here....how I love reading your comments on daily life in England! My experience in Germany and Greece (re isolated, unheated toilets) was similar. But the button-operated gizmo - that thing is new to me. Maybe it's an ecological, energy-saving thing?

John Kelly said...

What it is is a broken thing. An internal thermostat is supposed to turn the unit off when the water reaches a certain temperature, 80 degrees Celsius or so. Then when the water temp falls below that, it turns on again. If for some reason that thermostat fails, the unit shuts down for good when it reaches 100 degrees. Then you have to manually restart it by pushing the lighted button. So that's where we are now. The thermostat needs replacing.

I like the possibility that this is good for my complexion, though.

suburbancorrespondent said...

Well, John, at least you don't have to sit down all the time. It's the rest of your family I feel sorry for.

And don't the Brits wash their hands after using the loo? Where's the sink?