Killer winters

I had occasion to get out the storage box of winter kit the other day. I found

  • two pairs of dress gloves, good to about 5C below
  • one pair of leather gloves, without lining, old but serviceable, of the same warmth value
  • three tuques (wool hats) for serious cold
  • two or three tuques for down to minus 10C (not serious cold), the kind skateboarders seem to wear in summer
  • four scarves, wool or fleece
  • two tube neck warmers,for more serious cold
  • two pairs of winter gloves, one piece, suitable for skiing
  • three pairs of leather gloves with complete wool liners, good to -15C
  • two complete fleece head masks for weather colder than -20C
  • three pairs of glove liners in various modern fabrics, with no outers
  • two pairs of mittens, with liners in fleece or wool, for down to -30C

I am not even discussing the number of heavy socks in another bin.

Coats? I have three of them

  • one with hood for down to minus 10C if you wear a fleece below it (good for fall, spring, or early winter)
  • one good to minus 30C, with hood, super modern, well-insulated
  • one Arctic parka good for down to minus 40C, which is worn every few years or so for a day or two, and I thank God for it.

So call me Canadian. What is my point?

In today’s Telegraph, an article on British winters reported that there were 43,900 excess deaths last winter (2014-2015).

There were an estimated 43,900 “excess deaths” last winter – the highest figure for 15 years, official figures show,

Experts said the failure of the flu vaccine last year, as NHS services struggled to cope with winter pressures, is one of the key factors behind the deaths of thousands of people, mainly elderly.

The figures are particularly worrying because last winter was warmer than average.

In 2012/13, one of the worst winters on record, with the coldest March for 50 years – there were 31,000 excess deaths.

The report from the Office of National Statistics show the number of excess winter deaths in 2014/15 was the highest since 1999/00, with 27 per cent more people dying in the winter months compared with the non-winter months.

The accompanying chart showed that, for the United Kingdom, average winter temperature (not defined by month) was 4.8 Centigrade above zero.

These were the figures for Ottawa, Canada from


Av. Daily
Max. Temp.

Av. Daily
Temp. (°C)

Av. hours
(per day)

Av. Days

Av. Days

Av. Depth
Snow on
Ground (cm)

Av. Wind
(km per hr)

Jan. -6 -15 3.3 4 15 21 14
Feb. -4 -13 4.4 3 11 25 14
Mar. 2 -7 5.2 6 8 20 14

As the Telegraph reported, the issue is not merely about cold.


Janet Morrison, Chief Executive of Independent Age, the older people’s charity, said: “These shocking figures show that the over 75’s are most at risk by far of excess winter deaths. But tens of thousands of excess winter deaths do not need to be an inevitable part of cold weather. Countries like Finland and Germany have significantly lower levels of excess winter deaths, despite having colder winters than us.

“The uncomfortable truth is that, as a country, we not very good at coping with winter and some of these deaths are preventable. This isn’t just a story about cold weather; it’s a story of cold, damp and poorly insulated homes and pensioners who can’t afford to pay heating bills.

If half a million people died in a harsh winter in England, then they would do something about the lack of  insulation, double glazing, and heating of many older English homes.

But because winter fails to kill enough people, its mortality toll is tolerated, as it has been for millennia in western Europe (France, the Low Countries, England, Ireland). Central European dwellings have had double glazing and warm stoves since they were invented, because they had to. Every place in the world is engineered around its climatic extreme: heat, dryness, rainfall, snow loads, cold, earthquakes, hurricanes.

If you are going to die without adequate heat, for a certainty, you will have a warm house and a fuel supply. If you can just scrape through being miserable, but alive, you will tend not to invest in insulation, double glazing and adequate heat. Simple as that.

It took the English settlers of New England many years to stop building daub and  wattle housing (bent sticks and mud) and adopt the log cabins of the Swedes, or ethnic Finns, of the Swedish colony in Delaware.

And then there is this British equation of enduring cold dwellings as a form of being virtuous.

It is all very well to open the bedroom window at +5C, and sleeping under a warm blanket. Opening the window at -15C is insane, in my view.

A Danish older man once said to me: “Ja, there are a lot of Englishmen in the Arctic, all wearing tweed jackets, all dead.”

I have adapted. Winter is not a matter of endurance; it is a matter of equipment.