On fire

Last night Joan and I went with a friend to see “Frozen” at the Theatre Royal. It must be the bleakest drama I’ve ever seen, Sophoclean in its bleakness. From a bleak start it’s all downhill to the bleakest imaginable dénouement. Even here though, joy is evident: the wonderful acting (Jason Watkins is not the only one to excel), the compelling structure of the drama, the writing and the wonderfully simple but effective stage design, are all evidence of professionals who love their craft. If you’re of a resilient temperament, don’t miss it.

This evening I’ll find solace by the fire. I’ll light it at about five in the evening, as I do on most evenings in winter. Fire…I was brought up with fires from my early years. Before central and storage heating came along, it was fire that kept the drawing room warm and the coal fired boiler that kept the kitchen warm. Even when they did, I’ve had a live fire in nearly every place I’ve lived.

Apart from fires in a grate, each a unique miracle of movement, colour and warmth, other pyro stuff sticks in the mind. I think it was in the exceptionally fierce winter of 1947, and it was the Christmas tree. In those days there were no electric fairy lights. The lights on the tree were small white birthday cake sized candles which were attached by means of small coloured metal spring clips that gripped the supporting branch or twig. Lighting the tree was the event, which lasted for about 10 minutes or so until the candles burnt out. My father went round with a box of matches and lit them; and very beautiful they looked to my young eyes, but our wonder quickly became alarm as we saw a twig catch fire and soon the flames were spreading very quickly. As far as I remember my father managed to douse the fire with a bucket of water, but I can’t recall the aftermath. I don’t remember being particularly spooked by this, but Joan thinks this fright must be the source of what she regards as my Ebenezeresque mind-set at Christmas, and particularly my minimalist attitude to fairy lights.

When I was a boy I was sent away to summer camp, where in the evenings, we sat around the fire grilling sausages on pointed sticks, and singing “Waltzing Matilda” and the like, but the best bonfires I’ve seen were at the great community Guy Fawkes events. We were really lucky for years for just down the road, the displays at the local health club were legendary. We’d go as group of friends, relations and children to see these incredible displays. The bonfires were huge, the fireworks indescribably amazing, and on one occasion at least, there was a huge ramp from which motorcyclists took off to turn mid-air somersaults on their bikes accompanied by the laser light show which normally preceded the fireworks themselves. These wonderful festivals of fire were great social events, enlivened by picnic supplies of snacks and drinks, a great way to kick off the dark season.

Children grow up. Health clubs change hands.

As I write the spring equinox has passed so the fire season won’t last much longer now, not to be resumed again ‘til probably late autumn. In the dark time the evening hearth is the heart of the home, a place of fuggle, toasty bottoms, a womb of comfort, conversation, entertainment, and reflection; all this, and the hypnotic fascination of the ever-changing sight and sound of that primal chemical reaction which touches us so kindly if we’re careful.

Such a blissful milieu doesn’t just fall out of the sky. However much you love a fire, you must make it every day. It’s a routine, but one for which no effort is grudged and so has become a bit of a ritual, and an opportunity for some obsessive-compulsive behaviour. First the sombre remnants of last evening’s flames must be cleared. The grate is not large, and the ashes are easily shovelled out into a doubled supermarket plastic bag. Our grocer, for some reason, wraps everything in plastic bags when they provide home-delivery. I use two because mostly the bags have holes in them to prevent foolish children from suffocating themselves. When there are two, the chance of the holes aligning to make a leak is slim.

Sometimes, when I’m alone, I tempt fate and carry the small black shovel I use, laden with ashes, across the dining room carpet and into the kitchen for disposal, so far without mishap. It’s proof to my head of the steadiness of my hand. Despite their fineness, the ashes are surprisingly stable and not nearly as difficult to balance as, for example an egg in a spoon race. This is going to annoy Joan when she reads it, so I promise to refrain from all such hubristic dare-devilry, if you can stretch your imagination enough to call it that, in the future.

The black granite hearthstone is swept clean and the grate replaced. Next I must fill the coal-bucket with the Blaze stored in the ally (see my blog dated 29th April). I enter with a large pair of scissors. First I heave a bag up the three steps to ground floor level, then cut a largish hole on one side at the top. I grab the opposite top and bottom corners and tip the Blaze into the bucket. Clunk, clunk, clunketty, clunketty, clunk. Can you hear it? One bag of Blaze fills three buckets, so the remainder is left on the step for the next refill.

Back at the fireplace I tilt, swing the bucket towards the grate and approximately 38% of its contents jumps onto the grate. The sine qua non of fires, as everyone knows, is height. Height provides the chimney effect, by which the warmer the air, the quicker it rises, drawing progressively more and more from the room to feed the fire its oxygen.

With the tongs I carefully construct a black wall against the back of the fireplace on top of the grate. The full width, about three Blazers high and about three deep, tapering to one at the top, topped off with a small log, and one or two leaning against it, complete the preparations (these orthodox “π” or “ τ” configurations give you all the height you need). I use a gas poker to get it going. Blaze is usually quite damp when it comes straight out of the bag, so firelighters, however delicious their smell, don’t last long enough to do the job. Luckily a gas pipe terminal, where the poker’s feed tube can be attached, surfaces just by the hearth, probably because at some time in the past a gas fire had been fitted. After about twenty minutes the Blazers have turned rosy at the edge, the logs have started to hiss and throw out flames. The fire is lit.

The glowing Blazers are its rosy clouds at dawn, the crackling logs and flickering dragon’s tongues its lively morning, the full on heat of its amber chambers, its afternoon, and late evening is its slow death by starvation. All fires die of starvation, of fuel, oxygen or both, but you’ve just had five hours to share the flint-stone Cro Magnons’ primaeval delight.

I’m the chief fireperson, and I’m particular about how my fires are built and tended. Joan occasionally builds one, and when she’s around, Louise takes an interest. It’s difficult for me because everyone here, even though in most other respects spectators, has a touch of pyromania, an irresistible predilection for fiddling with the fire once it’s going. They poke it. They put new Blazers or logs on in the wrong places and at the wrong time. They seem to have no notion that the ash must be raddled through the grate to increase the air flow, and have no notion of leaving well alone when it is. And they’re not very receptive to advice.

Recently, when happily engrossed in Narcos on my iPad, I was interrupted, even though I was wearing headphones, by a terrible banging. It was late, and Joan was trying to beat a recalcitrant log into life with the small black shovel. Surprisingly, coincidentally and unluckily this turned out to be a highly addictive habit, like watching Narcos itself, actually. Perhaps she found it a way of releasing her stress and frustrations, I always remonstrated with her about disturbing the peace, and after a few noisy, and in consequence edgy, evenings she finally managed to break the habit, and evening tranquillity was restored.

The fire is not the only object of hypnotic fascination in the room. Besides Joan, there is the lava lamp.

The lava lamp was invented by the late Edward Craven Walker and first went on sale in Selfridges 1963. It was inspired by the design of an egg-timer which Craven Walker had spotted in a local pub, and he spent years developing it. It became an instant success with Fortnum and Mason and Habitat quickly following Selfridges. It’s still manufactured by the company he founded, now called Mathmos of Poole in Dorset. Joan bought me one, at my request, for a birthday present.

Craven Walker, so the Mathmos website tells us, was a Great English Eccentric who would drive around in a fire engine when not using his Jag or helicopter. During the war he was a squadron leader flying ‘blind’ reconnaissance missions, and after, following a visit the legendary Isle Du Levant, he became a committed naturist, and amateur underwater photographer. One of his underwater naturist films, made, he insisted, to promote the naturist cause, was “Travelling Light” (1960). Billed as “The first true-story naturist film” (in Eastman Colour), it was the first ever of its kind to be granted a certificate by the film censors, and was shown in the Cinephone, Leicester Square for six months. It was further distributed in the provinces, the USA and Europe making him a rich man. With some of the proceeds he bought an existing club and renamed it the Bournemouth and District Outdoor Club. It was said to have set new standards. The mind boggles.

The lamp we have is the original so-called Astro design which maintains the fiery colour theme with red lava in a violet medium. It is a well-made object. Its base, like an ostrich egg cup, is of high grade polished aluminium giving a silvery finish without the need to polish. The cap is the same. The glass bottle was originally just a squash bottle supplied by Vandenburgs.

I know some regard the lava lamp as naff, tacky, lame, even uncool. To me, though, it’s a fine piece of post-war modernist industrial art, which launching into the psychedelic sixties richly deserved to become a pop icon. In 1968, the entire chorus of the musical “Hair” stayed at the BDOC at Craven Walker’s invitation. He was married four times, suggesting that lava lamps were not the only thing he found hypnotically fascinating, but it pleases me hugely to think that this object, so interesting in many ways (Archimedes for one), can be afforded and enjoyed by millions. The design accolades, celebrity endorsements, and continuing survival of the company mean that for once I am on the side of the majority.

The Astro has about two litres of liquid and takes a fair time to warm up, about 90 minutes before it’s in full swing. The long wait gives time for periodic inspection. At first the lava lies motionless at the base forming on the surface a low disc, visible above base, about a centimetre thick. If you look closely, you see its texture is weirdly granular; this is a liquid after all. It’s as if you are looking across some exotic sunlit sandy ocean floor. There’s even what looks like a flat fish on the sand camouflaged in every respect except its outline. It’s a collapsed lava bubble which failed to amalgamate with the main body when the lamp last cooled off.

Over the next 80 minutes the glowing surface of the lava rises imperceptibly. It’s becomes flat if not slightly inverted. You’re looking at something which might be the sucker of some giant mollusc. Eventually and quite suddenly the tipping point is reached and projections of lava burst upward. They don’t break free but make twisted vertical columns, which quite quickly become unstable, and fall to feed the next up-thrust, making curious, dark honey-coloured bone-like shapes.

Think Hans Arp’s free-flowing movement sculptures. Here is a machine for generating them at two or three per minute. This phase lasts, I don’t know, about 20 minutes until the ultimate cycle pattern develops with great golden globules of lava ripping themselves from the pool in the base to float upwards. In the early stages these in turn have smaller globes ripped from their bellies to sink downwards.

As the 20 watt bulb gradually warms it, the lava becomes more viscous and satellites more easily separate and combine, so eventually there are four or five pebble sized globules and floating about, those going upward colliding with those descending, distorting smoothly to bypass them before hitting the top, cooling and beginning their descent. Think abstract Arp. (He died in 1966 so it’s just possible he saw a lava lamp. If he did, I’m sure he would’ve loved it.)

“I think it will always be popular. It’s like the cycle of life. It grows, breaks up, falls down and then starts all over again.” So said Craven Walker. Yes, but it’s because its iterations are, though similar, always different, that it never fails to fascinate.

Enough of fires and lava lamps. Their time has been and gone. We’ve had so much comfort and hypnotic fascination this season that we’ll become complete zombies if we have any more. Now we migrate to the other side of the house to enjoy the longer days and increasing number of vernal events in the garden, weather permitting.






2 thoughts on “On fire”

  1. My favourite so far…..beautifully written, not just the chocolate box nostalgia but less frustration.

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