I was standing outside council headquarters in Aberdeen, but forgot momentarily what I was doing there as I blinked at my mobile phone.
I stared at a message for several seconds before the shock sank in. It was from M&S, which is not known for shocking us.
This comforting bastion of our cultural shopping heritage is supposed to make everything seem better.
I have always assumed that is why big household names lend their branding to other commercial business activities, such as supplying gas and electricity, and credit cards; and make profits, of course.
I thought my eyes were watering due to the bitter wind whipping under my Peaky Blinders cap. But it was an update from M&S about their monthly energy bill for supplying our gas and electricity.
They warned me that, if I wanted to carry on with my fixed energy tariff, I could forget about the cosy £88 a month direct debit I was so fond of – because it was rocketing to £236 instead. Is that a 150% increase? I think it is, almost.
Fixed tariffs used to protect us from billing shocks but, these days, spiralling charges can plunge people into instant financial hardship as the energy crisis bites. Or even death, as the Scottish devolved administration warned after criticising the UK Government for not doing enough.
Can we survive without central heating?
Maybe M&S felt embarrassed about its fine old brand being dragged into this mess, but most of us realise the retail giant’s hands are tied. They are merely partnering with another giant’s operation – Octopus, in this case – and simply passing on bad news.
An alternative payment method was offered by M&S, to cushion the blow. I could run with wolves in the open energy market with a variable monthly payment of £121 instead; suddenly a mere 40% increase seemed attractive.
Possibly preferable, but not totally secure, as I would be at the mercy of volatile daily changes in wholesale energy prices.
I was wearing a nice thick blue pullover to prevent me freezing outside council HQ; despite being more than 45 years old it is holding up well. Yes, I sound like a right old miser.
But, the pullover has sentimental value: my wife had it hand-knitted as a birthday present. Now I might start wearing it at home all day, if we switch our gas and electricity off to cut costs.
It sticks in the craw when the government offers to reduce household energy costs with cash handouts, but claw them back later from our bills
Can we survive without central heating? We seemed to get by years ago, but I do remember having to scrape ice off the windows as a small child – from inside, as well as outside.
It’s feasible if you are fit enough, but not for vulnerable people already at risk from Covid and flu.
Some would rather heat than eat
I heard that an old woman in Aberdeen would starve rather than switch off her heating. I found out from a shop assistant, who said she was told this by a customer.
The shop assistant herself confided in me that she had undergone major heart surgery, but Warfarin blood-thinning drugs made her suffer more from the cold. When the time came, she would also heat rather than eat.
It sticks in the craw when the government offers to reduce household energy costs with cash handouts, but claw them back later from our bills, after writing off millions on bad pandemic decisions.
And, especially, when those making the announcements are sharp-suited, well-off ministers who don’t have to worry about energy bills like the rest of us.
The stench of “us and them” hangs heavy in the air again.
A voice broke into my thoughts: “Can I help you, sir?” Asked a man at the council.
“Yes, please, I’d like two free packs of your little green bags for food waste, the ones I put in my brown bin.”
“You can only have one pack these days, we can’t trust people to use them properly, ” he replied. It was an Oliver Twist, “please, sir, I want some more” moment.
I started to give him both barrels about my brown bin – the one I pay them a £30 permit for – not being collected for a whole month, and the fact I had been buying my own green bags for ages. He just shrugged, as though he heard this stuff all day long, so I gave up.
Perhaps the council could ask Nicola Sturgeon to give them some of those school doors she suggested cutting up to circulate Covid air out of classrooms. They could use them for communal bonfires in the street, so we can keep warm.
David Knight is the long-serving former deputy editor of The Press and Journal