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After a longish period, with not much happening at all, the last week has been a particularly good time for reviews of my 'nostalgedy&#...

Monday, 3 October 2011

Grate Expectations


A question for you.  What is the connection between ‘Bonanza’, the hit cowboy series of the 1960s, and your old coal fire at home?  For the answer, read on…

What brought this subject to mind was the sudden failure of our boiler on one of the coldest days of the year so far.  Bereft of central heating, we resorted to our electric fire, which normally fulfils a decorative function.  Briar, our dog, trotted forlornly over to the fireside and spread herself in front of the limited heat.  This scene instantly took me back to my childhood living rooms.

Most of our houses were essentially arctic wastelands in the winter, except for the semi-circle in front of the (usually) coal fire.  There was a strict pecking order for pride of place.  The cat was usually first on the scene, and woe betide anyone who tried to displace him or her.  Directly behind the cat, as close as possible without actually making physical contact, would be the dog.  Behind these would often be the clothes horse with the washing of the day or, alternatively, the bed linen ‘being aired’ (my Nanna Whiteland insisted that all bed linen should be ‘aired’ for at least three days before it went on the bed).  Finally, grouped around the fire like a squad of crack fielders at a Test Match, would be our family, dimly aware that somewhere behind the washing, the dog and the cat, was a source of heat.

The fireplace could be a place of great activity.  The hearth would contain a gleaming Companion Set comprising poker, dustpan and brush (often slightly singed).  There might also be a coal scuttle and possibly a toasting fork.  One of the fireside rituals at Nanna Whiteland’s was toasting the bread.  Grandad was always delegated to this task because, as a retired railwayman, fire held no fears for him.  He would sit there, with the brass toasting fork getting ever hotter in his hand, whilst lesser mortals (like me) would shriek with pain at the transferred heat and drop fork and bread into the fire.  Grandad had asbestos hands from years of working on steam locomotives.  He thought nothing of picking up an errant live coal from the hearth and tossing it casually back onto the fire.  There’s something about toast made on an open fire that is infinitely better than a toaster or grill, likewise pikelets (as we called them, or crumpets).

So, where does the reference to ‘Bonanza’ come in?  Well, if you remember the opening credits, these used to show a map of Nevada and ‘The Ponderosa’ being devoured by a flame that would start at the centre.  Igniting a coal fire at home could lead to something very similar.

The process would usually start with a few sticks of wood wrapped in paper or, if funds ran to it, a commercial firelighter (a cardboard tube full of wood shavings coated in some flammable substance).  Setting light to this (or these) was usually quite easy but the whole process could fall apart if, like me, you were over-enthusiastic and then buried these nascent flames in half a ton of slack and coal dust.  All might not be lost if you could ‘draw the fire’ by blocking off the mouth of the fireplace and causing air to rush through the grate and up the chimney.  The blocking mechanism of choice was a sheet from a broadsheet paper (tabloid was useless), and the only broadsheet in our household was usually the local newspaper.  I quite enjoyed this job, watching the paper being partially sucked into the hearth and seeing the flames begin to work their way up through the dust and slack.  However, if I lost concentration (usually because I was reading the paper that I was using) I might miss the telltale charring in the middle of the sheet and would suddenly find myself clutching the headlines, as the rest of the paper vanished in flames.  Perhaps this was where the expression “a headline grabbing moment” came from?  No?  Oh well, please yourselves!


The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA.  This story features in the new bumper collection now released as a Kindle edition - "Crutches for Ducks"