The Joys Of Modern Life

36. Wood Fires

I AM the urban equivalent of a stubble burner. You will know my street on a bitter winter's day. It is the one with a whiff of wood smoke, reminiscent of a Cotswold village. Catch the smell and imagine drinking pints of Speckled Hen in old pubs while watching the rugby on Saturday afternoons. Come inside and you will find a roaring log fire. If the chimney hasn't been swept lately, there will be a smoky room that leaves your clothes smelling as though you spent the evening singing "Kumbaya" with the happy clappies. You will certainly forget that you are in inner-city Hackney, where the only illicit smoke you normally encounter is dope.

That's the trouble with real fires around here. You're not supposed to have them. You are meant to be satisfied with boring old smokeless fuel that comes in regulation-size lumps. In the heavily boundaried life of the city, sending your fumes over to your next-door-neighbours is considered as impolite as encouraging your tomcat to spray their front door step. Smokeless fuel simply does not have that rural authenticity, essential for those of us who live in shoeboxes, but who imagine ourselves in a country pile. That fire is the poor man's Aga.

I caught the bug young. As a child of the three-day week in the early Seventies, I still pray for power cuts and fantasise about burnt sausages cooked over an open fire. My dad is another evangelist. As children, when we returned from Ireland on holidays and everyone else's car was stuffed with booze, he filled our boot with turf. Our street smelled like a sodden hamlet in the Aran Islands. Sadly, they don't sell turf here. In any case, I couldn't support the stripping out of the Irish bogs and all those spring flowers and heather. So wood has to do.

There are plenty of downsides to the illicit fire. Asthma, for example, and the endless trips to the petrol station log pile to fuel the little monster. However, the joys are many. Of course, it's illegal, but that is part of the attraction. A proper fire is a friend, better to look at than the telly. Who, with any sense of romance, could resist lying on the floor in the dark beside the dying embers and that empty bottle of Jameson?

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