There are many things that an ageing mind ponders, regretting their passing with the changing of the world. I remember with some fondness the otherworldly innocence of children during my own childhood. They lived in another world than grown ups and were, in the main, protected from life’s harsh realities until they were of an age and disposition to deal with them with some level of success. Today’s children live in a world where childhood is denied and innocence does not exist, except in their ability to deal with it.
Today’s world is characterised by instant products so that there is no sense of accomplishment and anticipation as one labours toward a distant goal. No one boils a broth bone for hours to make the tastiest beef stock possible. Today’s cooks crumble an instant stock cube into boiling water, and, Hey Presto, the stock is made. Whilst instant stocks, sauces, meals, and desserts provide more free time, they have robbed life of some of the best tastes imaginable.
Where horses pulled carts laden with fresh greengroceries from door to door, today’s children ride in cars to supermarkets where all kinds of produce are available but where the assistants do not have the product knowledge that was once the hallmark of a grocery assistant. I could go on, but it would be no more than the idle ramblings of an old man who finds some comfort in the memories of the days that were and are now gone. But do not imagine that all that the past held was worthless, or classifiable only as a step between two worlds. Some things have gone that are irreplaceable and lost forever to today’s generations.
Of this genre is the indisputably heartbreaking demise of Fire Faeries: those flickering nymphs that accompanied the most romantic moments of our lives in the world that is gone. If you will permit me no more than one thing for whose passing the world is poorer, let it be Fire Faeries.
Mine was a coal fire world. In the blackened grate the coal fire spluttered as a coal exploded into flame, gassed long white spumes of white fumes that ignited into long lances of yellow flame, and sent curling smoke on its way up the soot-laden chimney to blacken the outside world, rot net curtains, soot-bespeckle clean washing hanging on the line, and fill the lungs of young and old alike, though the old coughed most.
It is not hard for me to admit with enthusiasm that electric and gas fires have many advantages over coal fires. Neither gas or electric require any preparation, whereas a coal fire has to have the ashes of the old fire raked through, sorted into those that will be thrown away and those that will support combustion again when the fire is lit. Those that are to be discarded have to be carried up the stairs, out into the cold, down into the back yard and thrown into the dustbin. When the wind is blowing it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to get all the fine dust in the pan and my eyes have had more than a few of those things that the bible tells us get into people’s eyes.
When the grate has been emptied, the grate bars cleaned out, and the dusty, still warm hearth scrubbed down with soap and water, kindling must be laid. Being a frugal family, our kindling was made with newspapers rolled into tight tubes, and then turned around our hands before tying the ends through each other so they stayed coiled. Five or six of these in the grate would start a fire if the coal was dry and the draught was right.
Laid in the grate with some small pieces of glistening black coal on top, a match was struck, and the paper lit. When the small flames had crept around the paper the draw-tin was placed in front of the fire opening and a large double sheet of the Huddersfield Examiner laid across that to seal the sides. This caused all the air to enter at the bottom and drive through the grate and the smouldering paper, rapidly drawing it into a fierce heat that ignited the coal. More coal was added and the draw-tin and its paper sheet replaced. In a few moments, the draw-tin glowed red and the paper grew a large brown patch of scorch. This was the sign to remove the draw-tin and throw the paper already burning onto the fire, from where it ascended the chimney at a savage rate of knots. The fire was lit.
That was the first task of the day, but the Fire Faeries did not appear until evening began to creep into the remnants of the day. The best times were when we had nothing to do but sit around the fireplace and talk low about the day and our dreams. When night fell, it did so slowly and with no announcement so that the day blended into night without our knowing it except that a feel came into the room as the noise of the day outside subsided and the room was lit and warmed by the orange glow of flames.
As the coals settled into burning red ashes, they became the generators of mood and lightly held dreams. From the brightness of their glowing mass danced the Fire Faeries, playing before us without self-consciousness. The ambience of that time was gentle, romantic, and restful, remaining until a blundering neophyte, unfamiliar with the simple splendour of pictures in the fire and the Faeries that danced among them, entered the room and, without leave or ceremony, turned on the light.
The vulgar yellow glare of the bulb above our heads ran the Faeries off and banished the pictures in the conflagration. But it could never dim or wipe away the memories of those moments when the arduous day-to-day struggles that permeated our lives were dimmed, and we imagined ourselves in a better, kinder, more pleasing place, in company with the Fire Faeries. Now they have gone forever from our lives. The world is not the better for that, and I long to see them again.
Copyright © November 2000
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