One of my earliest memories is seeing my father in the early morning raking out the ashes of our coal fire. I was interested in the blue veins around his ankles and bare white heels as he strained forwards with his short shovel. After the ashes he carefully placed balls of newspaper, which he called ‘spills,’ and built a tent of small kindling logs over them. I was careful not to speak as he was always in a furious temper while he was doing it.
Fifty years on, I have discovered why. I recently moved house and inherited from the previous owner a wood-burning stove, which takes up a large amount of space in my small living room, and a lot of time and energy from me. I was surprised to hear from Radio 4 that they are now a mark of worldly success similar to owning an Aga, endorsed by arbiters of taste such as f Lily Allen and Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall.
I was lucky then to find one installed, they cost £2,000 or more, and 180,000 UK homes had a stove installed last year with sales five times higher than in 2007. People are obviously desperate to go back in time. Of course we are told that burning sustainable logs is good for the environment and of course cheaper than gas. They cost about £300 a year to run, according to what you burn. I read an article by someone who uses locally sourced, recycled off-cuts he finds in local joineries.
It seems significant to me that the writer of that piece was male. Although we are now entering another phase of radical feminism, I may have stumbled upon a major difference between the sexes: men are happy to forage for their fuel but most women are not. It bothers me that since I moved in with this stove I am often cold, sometimes wet, tired and frequently covered in ash. My cat does not sit happily in front of it, yellow eyes gleaming as she might before a real open fire. She is wise enough to stay in the bedroom submerged in the winter duvet.
The friends who say they really want a wood-burner are usually men. They enjoy discussing how to manage them, keep the fire going by using petrol laced fire-lighters, pushing a lever to the right and releasing a valve at a particular moment. They seem primordially fascinated by pyrotechnics and see controlling fire as a real skill which they long to acquire, like small boys watching their Dads lighting fireworks on bonfire night. Fire brings out atavistic desires in men but makes me realise the value of ugly modern radiators.
Perhaps my problem is that I live alone, and wood-burners are a two person job; one to make the tea and rabbit stew while the other goes out to get the wood, every few hours. I used to enjoy Westerns and tales of frontier life, fancying myself dressed in skins and snow-shoes, but as I get older I find I am not really a backwoods type. I don’t relish going out in the night when the fire starts going out unexpectedly which it often does as small logs burn too quickly while big logs refuse to light at all. I wish I had watched just how my father made his spills instead of looking at his feet. If I am tired I just let the thing go out and put on an extra woolly.
It’s not pleasant squatting down in the dark and wet, trying to find wood dry enough to burn, neither is buying it any fun. A male friend recommended a particular sort of hard wood logs from a well known wholesaler. If you get wood or smokeless coal delivered it comes in very large amounts, your living space will be full of it, so you have to go off in the car, not a very green action, to buy the right size sacks. Like many women I do not like driving on motorways into industrial estates, to find wholesalers. The first bag I bought was dry on top but mouldy and damp further down. A local workman suggested a different outlet where they sell smokeless coal, as it’s easier to manage and cheaper. I set off again, to find the place in a distant, decaying 1960s shopping arcade.
‘We ‘aint got none. It’s not the season,’ an assistant told me as freezing rain lashed the roof. I suggested that winter might be a good time for mixed fuel burning stoves. She was obviously un-initiated, not the Aga type, and look puzzled.
‘We only sell fuel for barbeques,’ she said. ‘If there’s any left it’ll be over there, in Health &Beauty.’
I couldn’t follow her logic as even the most avid stove owners don’t claim that owning one adds to your good looks. I have noticed that ash in the hair does act a bit like the dry shampoo I used to use as a teenager, but most of the time I look like a ship’s stoker, with red eyes and a cough.
I was relieved to find there was no smokeless fuel among the false eye lashes and panty-pads because I realised rather late, that I couldn’t have carried it back to the car anyway, which was parked on a pavement somewhere round the back. Instead I went further off still to a better known household store and bought four piles of ‘high heat’ wood, priced at three for four, and lumbered that into my car boot.
I drove home in an increasing panic about unloading at the other end. One of the reasons I left London was to escape the expense of parking. My new location has no parking controls, which is cheaper but means I often have to park three streets from my door. As I reached home I saw that there was no space anywhere, the street looked like an oversize car-transporter. I parked illegally in someone else’s restricted entrance and began to frantically unload the wood before it got wet from the rain and my new neighbour saw my trespassing.
Since then much of it remains in my hallway, until I get up the energy to move it further, and some of it is inside the fire, where it refuses to light. A Spanish shop assistant, male of course, told me that at home they always use Doritos to get the fire going.
The girl in the shopping precinct had the right instinct when she said that wood only goes with barbeques, those high altars of the summer, where men preside over fuel and food. A woman with a wood burner is like a woman in charge of a barbeque, working it alone, in a howling storm. Labouring away over the recalcitrant coals she feels odd, misplaced, over stressed and worse, unwillingly revisits her need for a man. I don’t think I want to revisit that old history either.