Monday, 7 March 2011

Waste Not Want Not

Writing takes time, I'm sure you'll agree. Last week, for homework, my creative writing tutor asked us to concentrate on sights and sounds as we chose a subject from his shortlist of ideas. One of these was 'Cleaning out and laying a coal fire.'

This fired my imagination (pardon the pun), as I was a child long before central heating had become as common as it is in today's modern world, and I well remember the daily chore of lighting the fire. Here's what I wrote:-

Ritual Fire Dance, Perhaps...

Every morning, gritty pink-grey ash would waft up as I watched my mother's knobbly fingers sift through to save any unburnt pieces of coal. The fire basket screeched as it got dragged out from the recess of the hearth. Soon, the repeated metallic scrape and thump of the shovel sounded as it hit against the fire bricks after each scoop, until Mum had cleared every bit of ash and sent it shooshing into a waiting ash can, whose anodised aluminium lid and handle clanked and rattled in protest at being force fed with the unappetising breakfast..

Newspaper sheets crackled as she scrunched them into the empty grate and laid a criss-cross pattern of splintered wood sticks on top. Sometimes she would add noxious smelling, greasy-white fire lighter cubes, before placing the pieces of rescued coal from yesterday's fire on the wooden scaffold, along with a few satin black knobs from the scuttle.

The rasp of a match would be the signal for me to hold my breath, as I watched the flames encircle the paper and wood. Often, another large sheet of newspaper would be held across the front of the hearth, to help the fire 'draw' - or was it to help the chimney 'draw' the fire? I only remember the whooshing noise of the draft racing up into the stack, that made me think of trains in tunnels, and the horrible blast of air that sucked through open carriage windows, smelling of soot...

Occasionally, the fire ate the paper and wood before the coal was properly alight, and the whole charade had to be played over again. But on a good day, tiny embers would catch and Mum and I would will the fire to take hold, and sigh with relief when it did.

It would be many years before I realised that sometimes in life we need to sift through different cinders, to rescue dying embers and persevere until we can encourage them to blaze again.


  1. Good memory and a nice object lesson too.

  2. I hope one day to be as wealthy as you Brits and be able to afford my very own creative writing tutor. Until then, I will muck along with the help of a few active verbs and a handful of eager adjectives.

  3. OK, RWP - 'Our' writing tutor has six of us in his Tuesday class, for which we pay the princely sum of £60 for a ten week term. He is not 'mine'alone!

  4. We moved to a house in the country with a coal furnice in 1981. Mostly we burned wood in it but sometimes we burned coal. The lumber yard in town was still selling coal. It burned hot but it was so dirty! soot all over the snow outside. smelled bad if it wasn't burning right. I enjoyed your piece for taking me back as much as for itself.

  5. Our family did not burn coal, but I've watched many a wood fire being laid, and done it myself hundreds of times. It's much the same process, from removing the ash to helping create a draft for the fire.

    Nicely done, Jinksy.

  6. I remember they sights and sounds - you've done them proud.

  7. A good trip back in time .
    I remember how the paper held up in front of the grate to funnel the draught through the newly laid fire would sometimes catch and flare up in a scarey swoosh. I also remember my father's exclamations (!) when this happened .

  8. Full of nostalgia for me Jinksy - I could hear that newspaper rattling and smell the dying embers.

  9. I give you an A+ for the writing exercise! I was standing right in front of my wood stove (figuratively) lighting the fire just as you describe it --- perfect.

  10. I love the analogy of sifting through the embers as well as your wonderful memory

  11. What you have written reminds me of a wonderful poem by Robert Hayden:

    Those Winter Sundays

    Sundays too my father got up early
    and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
    then with cracked hands that ached
    from labor in the weekday weather made
    banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

    I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
    When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
    and slowly I would rise and dress,
    fearing the chronic angers of that house,

    Speaking indifferently to him,
    who had driven out the cold
    and polished my good shoes as well.
    What did I know, what did I know
    of love's austere and lonely offices?

  12. Plenty of sights and sounds in that story Pen. Hope your tutor was happy with it? Yes, my Dad used to use a sheet of newspaper to draw the fire too, and like yours it sometimes caught fire too - Dave

  13. Our sole source of heat was a wood-burning stove from 1978 through 2005, though I'd grown up with central heating. I, the mom, was the one who started the fire each cold wintry day. I don't miss the mess, but I loved your description of your mother starting the fire each morning. I could almost hear the metal scraping and the crinkle of the newspaper and I could smell the burning wood. Sometimes in our wood-burning stove there would still be hot coals in it by morning, so it was easy to fire it up again. Later, we had a propane fake wood stove installed, but propane got way too expensive, so now our house is all electric. It's a very efficient heat pump/AC, though, so our electric bill is very reasonable.

    Thank you for your sharp memories!

  14. Oh, how I miss a good coal fire - though not preparing it. A lovely, nostalgic piece.

  15. I remember all this...... exactly.

    Nuts in May

  16. Brought back a few memories. When we were first married I cooked on a coal range.

    Also loved your title - have you heard the rest of the saying -

    waste not want not,
    may I never live to say,
    how I wish I had the bread,
    that once I threw away.

    My Grandfather used to quote this often.

  17. Dear Pen,
    I love to read those accurate memories of a past not that long ago. Coal fires I don't know (but there must have been a few houses in Bremen, where I come from, that were heated with coals, because I faintly remember there were still coal waggons, and see in my mind the trail of coals in the snow)., but lighting the fire of an oil stove, what we had to do, was a little skill of its own too.

  18. I remember this exercise, too, and sometimes throwing salt on the fire for the pretty flames it made. We have multi-fuel burners in our house now and they're no less tricky to start.

  19. Thanks for jamming with Poetry Jam. The last paragraph has so much truth and is definitely food for thought.

  20. enjoyed the last paragraph, perfect how you summed it up, very encouraging

  21. I could see, hear and feel every word ... amazing memories Penny. Thank you for sharing.

  22. Wow! What a memory! And a good life lesson as well, despite the unpleasant smell!

  23. Wonderful wrap up there in the end. Sweetly written and I just love "Mum" (I can hear the accent) :)

  24. What a treasure you have there in that memory of yours. Something to cherish, because when coupled with your use of language, it all lives again, those moments. Sorry to be late, but I'm glad I caught your fire.


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