Cold Comfort

February 16, 1994|By JOHN BRAIN

When icicles hang by the

wall . . .

And Tom the ploughman

blows his nail . . . Images of cold and its discomforts abound in Shakespeare, as in many other writings from earlier times. In those days not so long past, cold was a misery to be endured with fortitude all winter. In America today cold may make headlines and create inconvenience, but it rarely shows its teeth or bites hard. We live in heated homes, drive in heated cars, work in heated offices. We are well-fed and well-clothed, and Jack Frost rarely nips our persons though he may pinch our purses.

I remember as an evacuee child in wartime England living in a tiny cottage, getting up to find ice crusted in fantastic patterns on the window pane and water frozen in the bowl.

I remember pedaling to school on my bicycle, one hand at a time on the handlebars, the other tucked in against the cold. Every few minutes I stopped to bang my hands, but even so arrived at school with fingers and toes numb. We thawed ourselves out against the classroom radiator -- only to learn later the pain of chilblains as the feeling come back.

I remember being forced out onto the frozen soccer field in shorts and shirt and standing back to back with other reluctant players trying to keep warm. Cars then had no heaters, and passengers draped themselves in rugs to keep warm. Then there was the awful cold of motorcycling in midwinter, with the hail slashing my face like a razor and finding every chink around goggles and scarves.

Anyone raised in England in those days will tell you that Americans don't suffer enough from the cold and as a result lack virtue. Who was it said, ''the English believe they are virtuous when they are merely uncomfortable?'' Probably Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde or another of the snide Irish who nonetheless lived smugly if not snugly among us. The virtue of the Irish is always in question; they enjoy themselves too much.

English homes are quite unlike American homes. American homes make the most of space and often combine living and dining areas. English homes separate living, dining, and sleeping areas into tiny boxes. Why? Because without central heating one can afford to heat only one room at a time; as one moved from room to room, one turned the heat on or off, and with luck eventually the temperature reached 55 degrees long enough to feel it. The government has now issued a carded thermometer to seniors to warm them when they are dangerously cold. We didn't have that luxury; we bundled up and waited for spring.

The English have never doubted that suffering ennobles, and that's why they are privileged to suffer, to show their superiority. But there are signs this stoic virtue is breaking down. When my late mother-in-law's home was sold last year, the young couple who bought it installed central heating and knocked down the dividing walls. How can such people claim to be superior? The empire has gone, the white man's burden is cast aside, and the English are growing warm, soft and mushy. They couldn't found a colony today if they tried.

Unlike the English, Americans play in the cold to have fun. They ski down frigid mountains and skate on frozen lakes. That's because when they come in from the cold, it's warm inside. The English can't approve of that. Cold is not supposed to be enjoyed, like religion. In fact, churchgoing is an excellent way of reminding oneself how virtuous it is to be uncomfortable. Cold stones, hard pews. Only moral degenerates heat churches.

Despite all, the English believe they live in a moderate climate and heating homes and cars is an indulgence. Discovering oil under the North Sea was their undoing. They no longer had to rely on coal, the black rock mined by men who suffered and died wresting it from the earth. Heating with coal produced dense, dark, filthy, yellow fogs which killed and blotted out the sun all winter. It was a fitting punishment for warmth and softness. But oil brought warmth to winter; it was the beginning of the end.

Others just up and left. Turn up the thermostat.

John Brain is a Baltimore publicist and writer.

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