The first frost came last night, but we’d anticipated it and put coal on the fire, keeping the stove going until morning, so although it wasn’t toasty first thing, the difference in temperature between inside and out was significant. I think for people who have grown up with electricity as a given, heaters as a source of reliable and instant heat, kettles, cookers and central heating, the importance of the fire for most of our ancestors, is hard to grasp.
Waking up in the morning, in winter, with the fire gone out would have meant not only being desperately cold, but having no means to cook, or to heat water and a job to do getting the fire re-lit. Pre-matches and lighters, the starting of a fire was a much more complex business, time consuming and requiring patience. It’s a vast distance away from the instant heat and light that so many of us in the western world can now take for granted. If my fire goes out, I do have gas, can still make hot drinks and lift the temperature. I benefit from modern insulation, a duvet, and other luxuries that most of my ancestors could never have dreamed of. I do not need the fire to bake my bread, or cook my food. I do use it for cooking, I love the kind of one pan slow cook options the stove gives. If the fire goes out, I still have a gas cooker to turn to. That gives me a layer of insulation from the realities my ancestors had to deal with.
I’ve long been interested in living history. Books are all well and good, but it’s hard to really grasp the implications of a thing until you’ve done it. I’ve foraged for wood, and I know how much wood you need to get through a night. Not the handful of sticks you’ll see in films. I’ve hand-washed clothes, an activity that dominated the lives of my female ancestors, and I understand the bliss and luxury of a washing machine as a consequence. I’ve no real firsthand experience of farming though. I’ve milked a goat, once, years ago. I’ve never ploughed a field or carried a sickle for harvesting. From our first settling to agriculture through to the industrial revolution, farming didn’t change that much. Humans tilled the land, aided by animals. The grain was cut with a blade wielded by a bloke. There’s a startling amount of continuity in the history of bread, from prehistory to the early twentieth century. The industrialisation of farming is actually rather recent. Photos at the Folk Museum in Gloucester of harvesting in the 1940s could have depicted a scene from the 1840s.
Our lives are easier, for the greater part. I think most of us aren’t that conscious of just how much ease we have, how much insulation from the vagaries of weather and harvests. Most people this morning will only have noticed the frost if they looked out of their double glazed window, and even then it will not have affected them.
The closer you are to living hand to mouth, the more amplified both the smallest of setbacks and the smallest of triumphs becomes. And over it all presides the small god in the hearth, the fire that gives warmth and comfort, cooks food, dries clothes, consumes all that you can bring to it. When life depends so much on getting small details right, when setbacks can kill and the fire going out is a disaster, then I think there’s a lot more room for thinking about gods. The vulnerability and immediacy of life in that context makes the fire in the grate a force to be reckoned with.
The luxuries we have are not as reliable as it may be tempting to imagine. A banking error a few months back pushed many into hunger, unable to access their own resources, some faced homelessness. A loss of a job can strip away the insulation in days. A change to the benefits system, or a loss of health can do the same. We travel from protected lives to ones where the magical switch on the wall represents money we don’t have, and the fridge is useless because there’s no money to put food in it. Many of us are closer to the ancestors than we think. The end of civilization is, I understand, generally considered to be about two square meals away.