I’LL GET ME COAT

GasOne of the benefits of my gradual withdrawal from watching ‘live’ television is the removal of that irritant known as the ad break; on the rare occasions now when something airs on commercial TV that I actually want to watch, I instinctively record it so that any pleasure which might be derived from the viewing experience is not routinely gatecrashed by ads. The ability to skip through ads was a genuinely liberating element of the VCR when it became part of the household furniture in the 1980s, but the advent of ‘catch-up’ has detached me further from the in-yer-face aggression of the ad man pushing his unwanted products on me. Quite a change from back in the days without choice, when we all saw the same ads at the same time and consequently all ended up humming the same jingles and reciting the same catchphrases. ‘Naughty but nice’; ‘The sweet you can eat between meals without ruining your appetite’; ‘Hands that do dishes can feel soft as your face…with mild green Fairy Liquid’ and so on. Rather quaintly, there are occasions today when I’m asked if I’ve seen ‘that ad’, and I have to explain I don’t watch them anymore.

This self-imposed exile from exposure to the ad break means I’ve no idea if energy suppliers advertise their wares on TV in the way they used to. Just as the unlikely likes of the Milk Marketing Board once claimed advertising space between programmes, I recall British Gas hiring Noel Edmonds to promote the brand in the late 70s with a characteristically annoying jingle. Why a publicity campaign was deemed necessary in the days before deregulation, when ‘the gas board’ was an umbrella term that encompassed twelve regional boards as a nationalised British Gas Corporation free from competition, isn’t entirely clear; but all of that was destined to be sacrificed at the free-market altar of privatisation come the Thatcher era, anyway. The plethora of competing energy suppliers may have offered a superficial variety of choice to the consumer since the tedious ‘Tell Sid’ auction of 1986, but anyone who has chopped and changed over the past 35 years is well aware that any initial reduction in price when switching from one supplier to another is short-lived, as there is always a gradual gravitation towards the same extortionate cost, whoever the supplier.

Energy suppliers seem to have been a political hot potato ever since plans to reform the system formed part of Ed Miliband’s manifesto in the run-up to the 2015 General Election campaign; it’s probably the sole policy idea from that era of the Labour Party that struck a chord with the electorate, for it was generally felt customers had been getting a raw deal from suppliers for far too long. Speaking personally, I know I’ve had more problems with gas and electricity bills over the last 20 years than any other; the likes of rent, water, telephone/internet, and even the much-derided TV licence (the cheapest of the lot by far) have all remained at a relatively manageable rate, in line with inflation and the cost of living. By contrast, gas and electricity have fluctuated wildly and rarely fall into the ‘manageable’ category; I tend to be informed of a ridiculous hike in prices via a letter (usually overestimating what I should be paying), which then necessitates a lengthy phone call in which I have to try and negotiate a price I can just about afford. And now it appears that same old troublesome utility is all set to spark one more crisis amidst the mounting of many.

This week, threats to gas supplies have been added to the Doomsday narrative that began with Brexit and has continued with Covid Project Fear. Just in case the prospect of the upcoming winter months doesn’t appear bleak enough with predictions of rising coronavirus cases, further lockdowns, and the reintroduction of restrictions, now the talk is of festive food shortages, possible blackouts reminiscent of the Three Day-Week, and astronomical increases in the cost of energy. Last year, Christmas came within a whisker of being cancelled ala Oliver Cromwell due to the Covid factor; this year, the media’s misery soothsayers are relishing one in which it’s okay to have more than six people in the house, but only so everyone can communally shiver and starve by candlelight. And, of course, by the time we’re on the eve of it it’ll be officially the Worst Winter Since 1963 as well – like every winter; and the NHS will be days away from complete collapse – like every winter. Other than that, though, sounds like it’s gonna be fun.

Seven of the smaller energy suppliers have gone bust in the past year – five of them in just the last few weeks – and the global gas market surge, provoked by a cold northern hemisphere winter that drained gas storage supplies, has sent the market price of gas soaring by over 50%; this is especially concerning in the UK, where the price of electricity has also risen due to gas plants generating just under half of the country’s electricity. The fact this is happening during September’s ‘Indian Summer’, even before the descent of the autumnal chill and the annual ignition of the fireplace, is worrying, for we’re hardly at peak usage time right now. The spectre of fuel poverty haunting households that we may well be confined to come the winter is not helped by scare stories about empty supermarket shelves; the ramifications of the energy crisis merges with food supplies via talk of a threatened shortage of carbon dioxide, which is a vital ingredient in the food and drinks industry. CO₂ can be found in beer and fizzy drinks, but it’s also used to stun animals prior to slaughter in abattoirs, as well as being a pivotal component of the protective packaging that keeps food fresh, meaning a shortage of it affects more than merely pig-farmers or dedicated diehard carnivores.

With so much time and effort devoted to imposing renewable sources of energy upon the public (without much in the way of consultation), the need to be seen doing anything to theoretically combat climate change has served to dismiss dependable and unfashionably traditional sources at a moment when they might actually come in handy. Plentiful supplies of natural gas have been left untapped by the fierce opposition to fracking, and nuclear being a dirty word has caused constant delays in the building of new plants to supersede the old ones; yet with the low-carbon PR campaign hindered by the unreliability of ‘green’ alternatives like solar and wind power, the remaining coal-powered stations in this country are now being bribed to stay open in order to cope with the impending new crisis, putting the usual crisis we are routinely bombarded with to one side. It seems the sudden U-turn mantra is jam today, regardless of the jam we’re constantly told we require for tomorrow.

The price rises are scheduled to kick-in next month, nicely timed to coincide with the end of the £20-a-week ‘uplift’ Universal Credit payment introduced during lockdown and the severest Covid restrictions; it was never going to last forever, though most probably didn’t imagine it would draw to a close the same week as a 12% increase in energy bills. It was inevitable that all the financial incentives required to pacify opposition to lockdown were destined to come to a shuddering halt eventually, though the timing of an energy crisis is unfortunate, to say the least. I guess the problem with news of this nature is differentiating between any genuine threat there may be and the scaremongering hyperbole we’ve become accustomed to over the past couple of years; the danger of governments and ruling elites crying wolf too often is that no one will believe them when the big bad wolf really is at the door.

© The Editor

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12 thoughts on “I’LL GET ME COAT

  1. The crisis with the minnow power suppliers is a distraction, they’re not really energy companies, they’re merely billing operators who never touch any energy itself: they merely buy it wholesale, flog it on and try to make a margin on the difference. Their flaky business models have suddenly been exposed when the wholesale price grew outside their predicted range.

    Behind it all is a major flaw in national energy strategy. Back in the ‘safe’ days of nationalised utilities, they may have been chronically inefficient but at least there was a strategy: that is what enabled the successful nationwide conversion to natural gas and the development of nuclear power to take place. The strategy was based on taking responsibility for the nation’s energy continuity by ensuring multiple sources, mostly under local UK control.

    Then the 1970’s miners’ strikes exposed the over-reliance on one source, so the thrust became one of relying on the international energy trade, shipping in oil, gas and coal, even laying electricity cables to France, to ensure national resilience. And now that strategy has been exposed due to the reliance on some quite dodgy sources, like Russia, using their price influence just when nations like Britain have left themselves exposed by failing to optimise potential local resources like coal, nuclear, hydro etc, at the same time as despoiling the landscape with unreliable windmills in the pursuit of imagined greenness.

    It’s not a fault of privatisation, but rather the failure to develop and maintain a robust national energy strategy which prioritises reliability of supply, a reliability which only comes from having multiple sources under local control. Over-reliance on any dominant suppliers or limited sources in a global market-place will always end in tears.

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    1. I remember as a child regularly accompanying my mother to ‘the gas showroom’, a high-street fixture along with all those other fixtures that have subsequently vanished from the high-street like banks and TV rental shops. I presume that’s how she paid the gas bill back then. Feels now as though Lockdown Mk. I was the death knell for paying a bill in person; it was for me, anyway. Amazed I hung on as long as I did now.

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  2. I can’t help hoping that our quirky Scottish weather plays a nasty trick just before and during the next Global Climate Warming Change jamboree in Glesgae.
    Maybe a hurricane or ice storm to close the airports to arrivals and bring down the power lines. Then a lovely high pressure weather event to freeze the city and stop the windmills.
    The speeches about The Tipping Point and “We’re doomed, Ah tell ye, Doooomed.” ( In a lovely Glasgow Kelvinseed accent) will be hampered by the chattering of expensive dental work.
    One can dream.

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  3. I think the gas advertisements were to promote the appliances that could be bought in the Gas Showroom, where you went to pay your bill. North Sea gas had just come online and electric hobs were not as rapidly controllable as gas, this was seen as a selling point. I once knew a Gas Showroom cooking demonstrator, and I believe Delia Derbyshire worked as one after leaving the Radiophonic Workshop. Likewise the Electricity companies, SWEB in the area where I grew up, were promoting storage heaters and Economy 7 as opposed to boiler and radiator systems. They were also in competition with the coal suppliers on a domestic level. Coal smoke was a regular smell in the winter, that no longer exists along with the orange glow of sodium streetlights.

    The joke going around when the utility companies were deregulated, when you could buy electricity from your water company, was that there would be a lawnmower ban in the summer.

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    1. Looking back at the ad campaign with ‘Little Noelly’, I was wondering what brought it about and it makes sense now, coal gas supplies being phased out by North Sea Gas as of 1977, apparently. I’d read about Delia Derbyshire working for ‘the gas board’ post-Workshop, yes; seemed a strange career change, but by all accounts she enjoyed it. I bet she could pick out a spooky tune on every pipe she came into contact with.

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  4. Two years ago I recall reading ‘State of Emergency: Britain, 1970-1974′ by Dominic Sandbrook. I remember the power cut era clearly; fish and chips by candlelight on Friday evenings is an abiding memory. However, I had no idea it was a SoE and that five had been declared during Heath’s term. “Imagine that happening NOW!”, I thought to myself. Perhaps I shouldn’t have.

    In terms of tv ad jingles, I was always fond of Pat Coombs’ ‘Shouldn’t be allowed”. Unfortunately, it’s yet to turn up on Youtube.

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    1. In a similar vein, I’d recommend ‘When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies’ by Andy Beckett. I too was ignorant of the causes of the power cuts. I just spent my early childhood thinking that’s the way things were, like I suppose kids the same age today will think people have always worn surgical masks, sadly. What was the Pat Coombs commercial advertising, btw? Sounds vaguely familiar.

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      1. I’ll look up that book. I think the Pat Coombs ad was for after shave. I can’t quite recall the brand but we can eliminate those that were promoted by Henry Cooper and Valerie Leon. (I wasn’t aware of there being a third option in the Seventies.)

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