Monday, 19 December 2011


I have heard people talk of oil lamps and candles as though they were a sort of witch light. I cannot but think this an instance of modern hyperbole. I lived the better part of life in the electric glare of later 20th century, but for a number of years now have been a lamp-trimmer and a fire-lighter on the Oxford Canal, and I find the difference to one's freedom in life infinitesimal.

For curiosity's sake I timed it. It took me ten minutes to replace the candles, to fill and trim the lamps, and another five to light all and set them in their places. Their light is kindly and efficient, not, as some suppose, dim sparks in a desert of darkness. I have never had to grope.  While the kettle boils (not electric) and the tea steeps, I lay and light the fire. That takes twenty minutes at most. Allow another quarter hour throughout the day for stoking, and you have spent an hour in lighting and heating. Would great thoughts and actions have been born in that self-same hour?

That is not the whole of the matter. The other day I happened across a passage on old lamps and fires in a early guide to housekeeping for the young wife. The writer opinioned, 'Somehow these things seem to keep the self-starter working.' That's it exactly. I have found these little bustling chores of routine initiate the spark of industry, and I turn from them to the real business of the day with a mind already alert and determined.  I have done something; I will do something more. The mind craves these small concerns to bite on: they serve as rallying points for the energies at the beginning and in the interstices of the day.  Without them, I have found that hour saved is spent lying supine, and when I rise at last, behold, it has hung itself around my neck, a great burden of disinclination.

The fire is one of the chief joys of winter. It lives in the stove half the year, for it smoulders all night, bursting into flame again like a greeting when stirred in the morning.  A log fire, when I'm home and awake, is luxurious. Built with the once-living hearts of trees, it must be laid carefully, understandingly, with due respect to the heft and shape of each log, and repaired as it crumbles rosily away.

I sit before it attending drowsily to the small talk of the flames, until the life that has entertained all evening falls apart at last and crumbles in a heap of red ash, striking a fountain of sparks up the chimney.  I rouse myself, glance at the clock; it is time for bed.

Who would grudge the attention due to such a friend?

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