The last time I lit a fire was to burn a packet of indiscreet letters in a flower pot – “Ne brulez pas vos lettres d’amour” – but for many years fire raising was my routine daily activity. Like a votress of Vesta I once had a job which revolved around it so I know that part of the appeal of a fire is that each one has its own character: every one is different. Winter mornings began on my hands and knees raking out the warm clinkers and cinders. For wood fires you leave a bed of fragrant powdery silver ash; a coal fire calls for a tidy grate with an empty basket. I had learned the routine at home from infancy: first the ash bucket, then the twisting of scrap paper into wreaths; the construction of a miniature wig-wam of sticks (small hatchet to hand on the hearth) and then the selection of tiny pieces of coal like black pearls, small enough to delicately hand-feed the new flame. There was also the risky trick of holding a double sheet of newspaper over the fireplace to encourage the fire to draw: this was not comme il faut at our house, being considered both dangerous and a bit of a fraud. I know I was petrified the first time I saw it done by Mrs Woodall from up the road. She was not above overcoming reluctance by also splashing a drop of paraffin about.
My father held that a fire should be kindled simply by skilled and simple laying: anything else was cheating. Maybe this was reaction on his part as his own dad was reckless and flamboyant with fire. Astonishing and wonderful noises, smells and colours billowed out from my grandfather’s hearth: squeezed-out tubes of oil paint, stale cocktail snacks, 78rpm records and once even an old radio were all chucked on. Amazing turquoise, green and orange flames roared up the chimney like Pamela Browne’s visionary fires of Isis in “Cleopatra”.
The biggest cheat in my father’s eyes was the use of firelighters: both an unnecessary waste of money and lacking in artistry. I’m not certain of their current retail status but no doubt you can still buy them. There was a type that looked a bit like meat faggots – lumpy bundles of sawdust and twigs: intriguing but not especially incendiary. And then there were ‘Zip’. Ah! ‘Zip’, once the light of my life. Zips came in a black packet licked by stylized flames. The packet somehow felt slightly damp and to me the contents looked like bars of moist, succulent nougat coconut cake: I always longed to lick them, bite and chew them. You could break or slice them in two (leaving oily crumbs) and the smell was addictive and tempting beyond belief – petrol/napthalene/ paraffin – so dense and literally mouthwatering. It lingered deliciously on one’s fingers but o! the punch of it when a new packet was opened. I never did taste, though: perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this now if I had.
Wood smoke is now a perfumery standard and you can smell coal mixed with rose in Nu_Be’s terrific ‘Carbon’. Coal has a great scent. It’s cold with a sooty dustines, an icy purity and the mysteries of a buried eternity. At home we went down steps into the pitch darkness of the coal house smelling the fossilised woods of one million years BC heaped up next to green logs, dry bark and sawdust. Hares, pheasants and the odd side of beef hanging for the table swung from hooks in the shadowed ceiling. There was a metallic tang from two great axes which were propped against the wall like props from a Tudor epic. It was a shed of horrid romance and imagination.
And we also had bonfires in the garden: the cardinal sin was to light one on a Sunday. (It was also said that a cheque written on a Sunday was automatically invalid). Bonfires of household rubbish, garden waste, soiled cat papers and whatever were heaped up on a concrete plaza beneath the apple trees. Fascinating smells filled our hair and clothes as we spent whole days playing around the pyre, the only pleas from the adults being that we didn’t waste too many matches. I think we got a little high on the smell of those too: the initial exciting hit as the flame takes wing. I imagine we smelled terrible but this I do not recall: like so many things the odour of bonfires seems to have changed with the years due I guess to the quality of things burned. We were like little devotees of Moloch, pleasing the nostrils of the gods with dead leaves and cardboard.
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