Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Fire, walk with me.

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.


Anonymous said...

There is something that you have forgotten, LI, about the coal fires. Everything burnable got burned. Yes, in damp, still conditions, we had smog, and it was awful, but those occasions were rare. And was there not something mesmerising about the crackling and the flames of a 'real' fire? There was very little of substance that went into the bin - it was almost all ash from the fire.

But we had time to contemplate in those days, did we not? The pleasure of a 'roaring' fire came only because of the contrast with freezing cold! I remember having icicles on the inside of bedroom windows!

But it is an illusion - lots of old people died because of the cold. There is no doubt.

Fortunately, it is possible to have both these days. We have 'living' gas fires plus central heating. I am looking at the gas fire now, and it is very pretty - yellow and red underneath and black 'coals' on top, and it gives out good heat. It is also pretty efficient. But the whole scenario is expensive.

Maybe we should start burning everything again.

Frank Davis said...

Damn right about being warm on one side, and cold on the other, sitting in front of coal fires early in the morning.

But by early afternoon they used to have warmed the whole house up (except upstairs, which had no coal fires and was a permanent refrigerator). All you had to do was wait 4 or 5 hours.

subrosa said...

Ah, those weren't the days but Junican's right, everything got burned. Potato peelings made the best blaze and were great for rejuvinating a half-hearted fire.

In Scotland your mother's fire/cooker was called 'the range'. My granny insisted upon keeping hers because it made far better porridge and soup than the gas cooker.

But coal was messy. I had both fireplaces fitted with open gas fires which are rarely used, but on occasion it's fine to sit, stare into the flames and dream. That's what I miss most, plus my lovely father's habit of warming my knickers and liberty bodice over a hot oven door.

Frank Davis said...

The other thing was that you had to regularly restock the coal hod (box) by the fireplace with coal from the coal cellar outside.

In winter this meant trudging out in wind and rain and snow and sleet and ice, and shovelling more coal (or coke) into the hod, and return freezing to shiver by the fire - and then doing it all again a few hours later.

But Junican's quite right about such real fires being mesmerising to watch. I've spent hours gazing into the shimmering depths of such fires. It's almost a journey into another red world. And it's perhaps why coal-effect fires try (utterly pathetically) to replicate the experience.

Nice idea to keep a candle burning. I only ever light them during power cuts. But I think that one of the main attractions of cigarettes or pipes or cigars is that they keep that primal, elemental flame alive.

For living things like us are ourselves a form of slowly burning fire - which is why we also give off the carbon dioxide that the antismokers and global warming alarmists so loathe and fear. And with our cigarettes we hold up mirrors to ourselves.

Anonymous said...

By fitting newer technologies such as pellet stoves and boilers the impact of black carbon emissions from the developed world could be almost halved.

That’s the sentence that says it all!
Pellets are manufactured from wood waste - taxed. Transported by in bulk at great expense and burned in high efficiency boilers requiring regular costly (rumour has it £500 to reline every 2 or 3 years) maintenance - taxed.
There is little or no profit in wood burning for tax collectors. They have no CONTROL over supplies. How do you hold to ransom/tax someone heating their home with fallen branches?
Once again just follow the money………………………….

Barman said...

I just loved the photoshopped car exhaust on the second link!

We had paraffin heating when I was a kid - the coal storage 'cupboard' (we lived in a council maisonette had long since been turned into a storage room... I remember the distinctive cry of the coalman delivering tho...

Like coal, paraffin leaves you cold on one side too!

Neal Asher said...

I keep thinking about getting a wood burning stove too. The contrast between here and Crete is attractive. There, because of the severe lack of trees, fire wood costs upwards of 100 euros a ton (pick-up truck full). Here, just a venture to a nearby hedge (all those Dutch elm casualties) could provide the same amount of wood in a morning. Also, think of the heat supplied by junk mail.

Steve said...

I would swap gas for coal any day.

Your view of coal seems quite odd, lighting a fire in the cold? This time of year they stay lit 24*7, and looking after it is 10 minutes twice a day. My parents are in their 70's and manage it just fine, and their house is so hot I take shorts at xmas when visiting.

I looked into wood burners to get the same effect for my place, but we have gone from wood being waste to everyone wanting it, and that is the reason why they are waning in popularity. Unless you have your own source of wood, the cost of buying it in many parts of the country is huge. I can run gas for less than the cost of wood, shame really.

Macheath said...

What's the thinking these days, I wonder, about open fires in pubs?

Our village local has just been refurbished - in a sort of coffee-bar style - and the inglenook where logs once burned is now full of dried flowers and whimsical antiquery.

Is this the shape of things to come?

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written piece LI. Takes me back to childhood days when we had a Yorkshire Range and fireback boiler for the hot water.

The coal fire was coaxed into life with a strategic placed shovel and sheet of newspaper to increase the draft, it took hours to warm the house through.

Someone near us has one of these wood-burners. Occasionally they put some coal on it too. I know this because on a still evening in the garden I can smell and see the smoke. The wonderful smell of burning wood and coal takes me right back to those early days.

Long may it continue.

Anonymous said...

Although a non-smoker, I, too, enjoy the smell of wood and coal smoke; they evoke so many pleasant memories.

I also remember having to clean out the grate and light the fire (with a back-boiler for central heating and hot water), a job given to me when I was only 6 or 7. Imagine the shock and horror from the (anti)Social Services if they were to find such things today!


Bucko said...

When we moved into our house four years ago there was central heating, a big wood burner in the back room and a small open fire in the front.

We have the heating on timer for the morning because there's no way we want to get up early enough to fanny about with fires and like you say, it's too cold.

We do use the wood burners for evenings and weekends though and it saves us a fortune in gas.

We get a lot of broken pallets from work for free so we usually manage to save up enough to see us through winter. You know what else we get from work that burns really well? Stale bread. Seriously, it burns hot and for a long time.

When there used to be smog it was because everybody was burning stuff on open fires. That situation will never happen again as most people will choose gas fired central heating all day long, leaving us free to burn wood and stuff.

As for the smell, I have noticed it when I've got the fire going then nipped out for a six pack. It's not unpleasant and not really noticeable. Some prats will complain about owt that differs from their own lifestyle.

Bucko said...

Forgot to mention, the EPA in America are trying to get all wood fuel fires regulated.

Woman on a Raft said...

What a beautiful piece of writing.

Woodburning changes dramatically as an option depending on where you are. Down in Cornwall it is almost standard fit now. They expect to use the gas for start up and water heating but for background heating the woodburner comes in very useful. There's a lorra lorra wood about down there.

The key seems to be to make sure you have as many options as possible. If the leccy goes off, the gas goes with it because of the electronics. At that point there's nothing more reassuring than a camping stove for heating the tinned soup, a wind-up torch, and fire-in-a-box.

[ Chief_Sceptic ] said...

As per last winter ...

Here in Norway, my house (3 floors) has a wood burning stove in the lower 2 and a connection point for the upper floor (chimney is close to the middle of the house) - domestic gas is rare here, electricity is the norm ...

Electrical heating is on low at night or when I'm out - when it gets really cold, each stove can pump out 7 to 10 KW, dependent on the fuel - wood is plentiful here and relatively cheap (cheaper for heating than electricity) ...

I normally use a mix of Birch (hot and fast) & Oak (slower \ longer) ...

I also throw in garden 'woody bits' (collected on year, stored in the woodshed, burned the next year) - a bit of coal or coke now and then - eggshells etc. ...

These "artificial logs" are very good for one thing - a half log will normally ensure that the wood ignites nicely, with no need to attend it - just light and forget ...

And I've a Tilley Lamp and battery lights and candles, for power cuts - I can even heat \ cook food on a stove, in an emergency ...

nisakiman said...

I have a wood burning stove - it's the main source of heating, as there is no central heating in my place. Although it doesn't get cold like UK, it does get pretty damn chilly here sometimes - down to zero is not uncommon. I pay €100 a tonne for Olive wood, which is great to burn. It gives off a lot of heat and lasts well. And I love the smell. On average I guess I use a couple of tonnes over the winter.

The stove is located centrally in the house, and once it gets going (it doesn't take long - 15 minutes and it's belting out the heat) we open all the internal doors and it heats the whole house. I love it.

Anonymous said...

you like smoke?
you would have really enjoyed the pea soupers of yester year.

Leg-iron said...

Anon - smoke is not smog. Every house in every town I grew up in had a coal fire, and I have never seen smog. Neither, I suspect, have you.

Leg-iron said...

I had forgotten about the time spent staring into the flames. Perhaps because I still do it, on windless non-rainy nights outside with the chimenea (it's not going properly unless there's flame belting out of the chimney) and on a small scale with a candle.

Everything burned but then we didn't have all that plastic to deal with. Shopping came in paper bags and everything else in cardboard boxes. Most of the contents of the old galvanised bins was ash.

Which was also kinder on landfill than the contents of modern bins.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, I remember watching a video on YouTube some while ago about this very issue – of how fire and smoke have played such a huge part in our development as a species – not just because of the light and heat it gave us and the ability to cook food, but also because for many, many more centuries than we have had fireplaces, we had open fires built up in the middle of what was pretty much just a big hut with a single room and a hole in the roof serving as a rather inefficient chimney. Being as this “chimney” arrangement wasn’t very efficient, much of the smoke from the fire inevitably drifted around inside the dwelling, swirling about everyone from mum and dad to granny and grandpa right down to the toddlers crawling about on the floor, the new-born infants in their cradles and the countless cats, dogs, chickens, cows, goats and pigs who also shared the space. Needless to say, any less-than-tough-as-old-boots children with weak lungs which couldn’t cope with a daily dosage of heavy woodsmoke didn’t last for very long, whereas those who could live and thrive in a smoky atmosphere survived to adulthood and passed their hardy-lung genes on to the next generation, with any weedy-lung genes which might be lingering swiftly being eradicated through what was, effectively, natural selection.

Then, over time, “civilisation” crept in, chimneys became more efficient and, as you point out, more recently, open fires pretty much vanished altogether. And as a result those few weedy-lung genes which were still lurking around in the gene pool started to make an appearance. Not noticeably at first, but as more and more weedy-gene carriers survived into adulthood then inevitably they met up with other weedy-gene carriers and passed on a double-dose of weedy-genes to their offspring. And as the centuries have passed and medical treatments for weak-lunged people have improved, yet more and more and more of these weedy-gene carriers have grown up, married and produced weedy-gene children of their own. Which may go a long way towards explaining why we now have a whole generation of youngsters puffing away on their inhalers, “sensitive” individuals coughing and spluttering and complaining about sore throats at the merest hint of any kind of smoke (although I confess I do think a lot of that is psychosomatic). The same theory applies to those people (unheard of as short a time ago as when I was a child) who go into anaphylactic shock at the sight of a peanut or who have to be rushed to hospital should anything containing shellfish pass their lips.

One of the downsides of modern-day “civilisation,” it seems, is to stop natural selection in its tracks and to allow the genetic “cracks” which are ever-present in any population to become more prominent than nature would normally permit. And smoking bans (and indeed all the rafts of health warnings and other regulations applying to anything which might pose any kind of risk to the sensitive or the stupid) play no small part in furthering this process.

Eddie Willers said...

Aaaaah! How I remember that oily smell of 'Esso Blue' paraffin as it burned in the portable heater on the upstairs landing of the council house we lived in from '64 to '72!

The one downstairs room had a fireplace - coal boiler was in the kitchen - and I remember my old man starting the fire in the morning and how great it was to have your clothes warmed over the fireguard.

Frank Davis said...

And as the centuries have passed and medical treatments for weak-lunged people have improved, yet more and more and more of these weedy-gene carriers have grown up, married and produced weedy-gene children of their own.

Except that all these hand-waving antismokers have only appeared in the last 20 - 30 years, as far as I can see. Maybe it's because the bastards all used to die of bronchitis and emphysema and tuberculosis before they got old enough to start complaining about everything, but now thanks to modern medicine they don't

andy5759 said...

The pea-soupers mentioned above by anonymous were mostly the cause of gas works. Nearly every town had their own gas works, these provided town gas by burning coal, the by product being coke for home fires. Now we have natural gas, therefore no more pea-soupers. Incidentally; town gas when inhaled through milk was the hallucinogenic of choice for vagrants in the 1950s, they would go into empty houses ad filter the gas through milk to separate the toxins out, neat eh? As for burning wood at home; it is carbon neutral, even greener if collected by the user locally. I have an open fire, burning wood backed up by the occasional nugget of "HomeFire" (a coke type of smokeless coal). I collect the wood locally. The amount of work is quite negligible, Two hours at the weekend collecting and sawing, and perhaps another hour or two during the week. The work itself keeps you warm and exercised. The fire is also often more entertaining than the BBC. Just don't let the cat out of the bag, otherwise there would be more competition for those choice bits of timber.

smokervoter said...

Ah yes, virtual Farmville (TM) chestnuts roasting on a simulated open fire, Jack Frost nipping....

It looks like we can add 'pulmonary retentive' to the list of previously unimaginable mental afflictions brought about by our Green new age puritanism. On its face it sounds like a fatal condition, but I suppose that sure death could be averted by the acquisition of a suitable oxygen mask, a raw macrobiotic diet, and an adequate supply of big pharma yuppie sedatives.

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