Environment

Keep the (country) home fires burning

BY John Pollock   /  29 February 2020

glowing coals meantime exhibit the shifting forms of hills and vales and gulfs…and walled towns appear,
and figures of unknown animals, and far-distant countries…and forms that combine every shape and suggest every fancy

Leigh Hunt, ‘A day by the fire’ (1817), Quotidiana

fire is the most tolerable third party

Henry Thoreau

A century ago, in the very bitter November marking the first anniversary of the Armistice, my 11 year old grandmother saw a remarkable scene in the village of Aldbourne. A group of men staggered from the warm hospitality of The Blue Boar, a 15th century pub on the green, and managed only a few yards before, one by one, “they fell like ninepins”. Every time she recalled it, she would laugh afresh at the absurdity of the sight, and every time she would explain why it happened: inside, the drink had dilated their blood vessels, which increased the flow to their limbs and skin, and made them feel warmer than they were. In fact, their core body temperature had lowered, alongside their ability to shiver to warm up, and the rush of cold air had its consequences. (The dangers of mixing alcohol and extreme cold are well known in Russia).

Fire – and warmth and the hearth – are literally elemental ingredients in the quality of life. For a little while longer, before the authoritarian ban on burning domestic coal and wet wood kicks in, you can still walk into a British pub and warm yourself by an open fire, and via the bar. In Ludgershall’s Queens Head, you can sit under a 13th century fireplace mantel, rescued from the nearby castle, before which King John and Henry III once huddled after the hunt. In Richmond’s White Cross, you can take the chill off in front of one of the tiny number of fireplaces under a window left in the country.

You can still hunt and gather wood, pile it in the boot of your car, and build a bonfire on the beach. Or, as my father did for many years, carefully bank the coal overnight, ensuring at least one warm room in the house (even if that meant wearing my overcoat inside as a general precaution). Still, for those who called for the Brexit-voting elderly to die off as soon as possible, the likely spike in excess winter deaths consequent upon the ban will be celebrated, I suppose.

But it’s not only the looming loss of coal or wet wood per se that bothers, it’s deeper things, the other stuff that matters. The entrancing beauty of mined coal or wood burning, revealing infinite worlds, versus something called ‘briquettes’. Or the sledgehammer of a ban – something I associate with the censorious left rather than sensible conservatives, with their better instincts, as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it, “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

If we must make gestures, why not put a tax on these more planet-harming if people-blessing fuels? Wherever possible, we tax other forms of quiet contentment, and any carbon-based animals, vegetables and minerals we can lay our hands on (including ourselves). Why a ban, why this peremptory and rude removal – or at least severe curtailing – by Ministerial fiat? Why end this ancient delight to all the senses, one of the most singularly atavistic pleasures known to mankind?

And what of the thus substantially diminished joys available to future generations – those who we use, with greasy hypocrisy, to justify any and all green policies? What of their right to enjoy the domestic delights and genial ease of a real fire in winter?

And, perhaps most alarming of all, what of the general and specific ignorance whereby a notable classicist’s government is so utterly disrespecting of Vesta, Goddess of the Hearth – let alone her virgins? Her sway is still felt in the instinctive urge to gravitate to the kitchen and its warmth, food, and gossip – the heart of so many homes – and we mock her at our peril.

The American idea of not drinking the Kool-aid is a useful caution against imbibing tasty delusions. I’m not sure what the equivalent modern eco-version would be – don’t drink Innocent’s revolting-looking Wonder Green, perhaps? – but it feels like our politicians have taken to indulging in ever more expensive, expansive, and loudly brayed ‘green’ decisions, while they sit in the snug of current economic warmth, getting drunk on the virtuous feeling of ‘saving the planet’.

Yet winter is coming. And so, in due course, there will be a much colder economic climate outside. And then how shall we warm ourselves? And who shall be warmed? As William Blake wrote in Vala, or The Four Zoas (1797-1807), his unfinished mythology about the fall of Albion:

It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted,
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer,
To listen to the hungry raven’s cry in wintry season
When the red blood is fill’d with wine and with the marrow of lambs.

It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements,
To hear the dog howl at the wintry door…

It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity

The people of this temperate archipelago have recently, repeatedly, and clearly shown that they rather resent being told by those in “the tents of prosperity” what they should and shouldn’t do, feel, or think. This is especially so, surely, when it concerns something as ancient and intimate as one’s Fire – a  phenomenon that touches upon almost the entire pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. As Blake asks earlier in The Four Zoas, “What is the price of Experience? Do men buy it for a song?” What price, then, the experience of a roaring fire? Are we to lose, forever, this particular pleasure for mere particulates and pieties?


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