When I was a horrible little child we lived in a council house. In those days, council houses were for working people who didn't yet earn enough to buy their own and my father worked at the coal face. He took home fourteen pounds a week in the sixties and that was a seriously good wage at the time. So we weren't poor but we weren't rich either. I was at school with the dentist's kid and a sleepover at his house was an eye-opener.
I remember the little house. It was semi-detached with a long garden, and was heated by two fireplaces. One in the living room and one in the kitchen. The kitchen fireplace was built in to some kind of cast-iron monster that had an oven attached to it. My mother never used it for cooking, she had a proper electric cooker. The house is still there, I've seen it on Google Streetview. It looks much the same but it has a satellite dish now. The old frog pond and the woodland of my youth is now beneath another housing estate. Those children who live there now will not come home covered in stinking mud. They won't bring home jars of wild lizards or shiny beetles or tadpoles with the back legs grown in. I wonder what they do for fun these days?
Having a coal fire was not a sign of affluence. Neither was the cast-iron cooking and heating monster. That thing would have been disposed of if it hadn't been built in to the wall, and if we had owned the house I have no doubt my father would have chiselled it out himself. I have seen him do much worse to houses we did own. If he had such a monstrosity now he'd sell it to some Hooray Henry as an original Aga because that's pretty much what it was. Old-fashioned and ugly.
Heating with a coal fire is not something to be aspired to. Now that it's getting cold here, I can set the central heating to come on half an hour before I need to get up and the house will be de-chilled before I roll back the sheets. I recall those mornings when the windows had frost on the inside until someone dragged themselves through the freezing house to light the fire.
It wasn't a matter of turning a switch. First, yesterday's ashes had to be scraped out and the hearth and grate cleaned. Not just cleaned 'a bit'. Cleaned to Mother's specifications which meant practically sterilised. Then place the kindling, paper and sticks, with a few bits of coal.
Then light it, let the coal catch and gradually add more. It took time to get the fire going and it took a long time for it to heat the house. In really cold weather you'd notice a big difference in temperature between the side of you that was facing the fire and the side that wasn't. One good thing about that house was that the chimney was in the middle so it heated all of the house. Chimneys in a side wall are silly.
The idea that heating your home with a coal fire is all romantic and sweet is bollocks. It's messy, you have to look after it all day and you have to start it in the freezing cold. I am delighted to have central heating.
On the other hand, a fireplace is cheap to run. One of the Smoky-Drinkers recently had central heating installed and since his bungalow is small, he opted to have the fireplace removed and the chimney closed off. It gives him a lot more space but I think he was mistaken to do that. The minor niggle is that you can't throw your fag-ends into a radiator but the bigger issue is cost.
Last winter there was a week in which I left the heating on continuously. That was expensive but it was the coldest winter week I can remember in the last fifty years. I remember deeper snow, but never so cold. Tonight is positively balmy by comparison.
It would have been good to have a chimney then because I could have saved on heating by burning some of the old palettes my neighbour gives me for my chimenea. If I could have used the central heating to start warming the house each morning and then turned it off when I had a good fire going I'd have saved a lot of money and still been continuously warm.
So I have often toyed with the idea of fitting one of the new wood-burning stoves. A friend in Wales has now installed a coal/wood burner that runs his central heating, provides hot water and looks very nice. Apparently his heating bill for all of last winter was £60, the bastard. Mine was more than that per month. He is tougher than me, cold mornings are easy when you're built like an orang-utan and he's five hundred miles further south. However, a daytime cheap-heating stove would mesh well with the timer on the central heating.
There was, until recently, nothing but praise for the wood-burning stove. It reduced gas and electricity use, it burned renewable wood and it was Green and trendy. People who had never experienced the sole dependence on a fireplace for heating thought they were wonderful. Very New Age, very back-to-the-roots, very working class, very socialist credential. Not for them the rooms coated with coal dust and soot, not for them the coal scuttle and the shovelling snow aside to get to the coal bunker. They used bought-in reconstructed logs with not so much as a flake of bark to sully the carpet. If you pick up a log and your hand doesn't get dirty, it's not real.
Unfortunately, the plebs took a shine to these things too, and saved a good bit of cash using them for heat rather than decoration. This is, of course, sinful under the New Socialist Utopia which is only for the rich.
I suspect that the reversal in the wood-burner's fortunes is partly due to that reduction in gas and electricity use (with the resultant reduction in socialist shareholder profit), but it's definitely very much linked to the new antismoking Puritanism sweeping the country.
Take a look at the comments on this one:
The government needs to ban these. This is the 21st century!
Thomas Roll, London, 26/11/2011 15:18
yuo don't need a scientist to tell us that our neighbours stinky wood stove is poisoning the air.....
- BrummyDoug, Birmingham, 26/11/2011
You wood burning folk only care about yourself. You stink the whole street out without any care in the world.
- Dave, Uk, 27/11/2011 5:26
And the fumes stink!
- Ray Smith, Nottingham, 26/11/2011 17:22
Straight out of the antismoker handbook. Every one of them.
It's smoke, you see, and smoke is bad for you. Candles have been implicated already. All smoke is bad. Didn't the Puritans realise what they did by telling the drones that a tiny whiff of smoke from a bit of a leaf will kill them? It seems not.
If it wasn't for Man's control of fire we would still be huddled in caves over the winter, being picked off by pumas and lions. We grew up, as a species, swathed in smoke. It made us what we are.
The drones argue that we don't need that smoke any more, that we have outgrown it but it is part of us. Our bodies have become used to it being there. Thousands of years of development and all the while surrounded by the smoke from something burning. Leaves, wood, coal, oil, always something burning. It is unnatural to be without it.
I have no fireplace in this house. It's about twelve years old and was built without one. Yet I have to have fire. When I'm at the computer there is a big white candle burning. It's not for heat or light, it's for fire. I have an array of anglepoise and spot-lamps (you young ones will need them when you get older so buy them while you can) all around this little office and there's a radiator right next to me. I have heat and light in plenty.
The candle provides flame. Fire is part of my life and as a human being it is part of my heritage. I was brought up understanding its use and its dangers. So was, not only my family, not only my countrymen, but my entire species. This goes beyond race and beyond nationalism. Every human being on the planet is linked to fire and to its smoke. It made us what we are.
The drones can deny their humanity all they like. I'm going to continue to burn something every day even if it's just a candle or a bit of leaf wrapped in paper. I'm not going to deny my existence to suit some ridiculous fantasy that refutes the heritage common to every human on the planet. Let the drones wither and fade in their imaginary worlds.
Fire, walk with me.