PAST LIVES I: THE SWEAT OF THY FACE


Not so long ago, work was for most people very hard indeed. In the pre-industrial age, it usually meant getting up at dawn; a traipse to the fields; many hours of back-breaking work with (if you were lucky) the solace of rough, raw cider or perhaps vinegary wine, with a bit of bread and cheese and possibly an inch or two of sausage for breakfast and lunch; then a long slog back home, when you were already exhausted, to a scanty dinner of bread and pottage.  Admittedly there were the easy months of late summer and early autumn, when the harvest was in and there was not too much to do, but after Christmas came the hungry months, before the new crops were ready for harvest. By February, the vegetables that had been laid up or pickled might well be running low, and unless you were reasonably prosperous, provident and lucky, the meat from the pigs that had been slaughtered and smoked or salted in the autumn might be little more than a fond memory.
     Never mind working, though; never mind “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (Genesis 3:19). What about life at home? Let's take away a few modern conveniences, starting with running water.
     I have my own well. I say “my own” but this is an historical accident: my house was once the quarters of the servants of the Big House next door, formerly the house of a wealthy merchant, now the Mairie (Town Hall). Several houses in the village have their own wells, but many others were dependent on the village pump (or pumps – I know of two) or the river. Ignore the risk of disease from any of these sources  –  my well is only about 20 metres/ yards from, and 3-4 metres/ yards below, the privy – or the fact that well water was often unpalatable to the point of being undrinkable. Sixty years ago, my wife's uncle had a well, too, but they would drive a couple of miles to get good-tasting drinking water from a spring.
     Drive, note. Water is heavy stuff. A litre of water weighs a kilo; an Imperial gallon weighs ten pounds. A small bucket commonly holds a couple of gallons, or maybe 10 litres. Quite apart from a 40-minute walk each way, how much do you feel like carrying 10 kg or 20 lb, plus the weight of the bucket, on the return journey? In fact, how much do you fancy carrying it even 15 or 20 metres/ yards? That's how far it is from the old kitchen of the Mairie (now part of my house) to the well. The (nearer) village pump, next to the church, is maybe 90 metres/ 100 yards away.
     My well is also connected to a pump. It hasn't worked since I bought the house, but when it did, it saved over half the journey to the well, and was over much more even footing. Even so, it is in the far corner of the courtyard from the kitchen, a good five or six metres/ yards: not much fun in lashing rain, or at night, or both.
     A tap is a lot more convenient. Sure, it encourages us to waste water: it's quite easy to forget that you have left a tap running, but very hard to forget that you are working a pump-handle. Which of us would not prefer the convenience (and for that matter the expense) of running water to the eco-extremist alternative of carrying heavy buckets for long distances? Yes, I'll go for the “green” option as often as I can; but there are limits to how “green” I'm willing to be.
     Now let's try heating the water. It's quite easy to leave a very large kettle on the back of the (wood-burning) stove. That will give you hot, clean water whenever you need it, whether for a cup of tea or to do the dishes. I have friends who do exactly this. On the other hand, they don't do it in summer, when heating water and cooking would be just about the only reasons for keeping the wood-burner running: otherwise, the room would be uncomfortably hot. At this point, especially in summer, “the sweat of thy face” becomes particularly relevant: a quarter of a ton, or half a ton, or more, of hot cast iron makes an excellent radiator and will warm a room a treat.
     Suppose, though, that instead of a cup of tea, or enough water to wash the dishes, you want a bath. There are few luxuries greater than a deep, hot bath; and even if you are so misguided as to prefer showers, how are you going to do this without running hot water? There are many ways of providing running hot water, but all are predicated upon those two essential words, “running” and “water”. Electricity, gas, oil, coal (preferably coke) or wood are all feasible; but those five run in decreasing order of convenience. In one sense, electricity is an extravagant way to heat running water. In another, it is the cheapest: an immersion heater is a great deal easier to buy and to install than any of the others, including probably gas. There is an old saying that the poor cannot afford to economize. As applied to water heating it is especially apposite.
     Nor let us forget storage space for fuel. Electricity requires none, unless you are ultra-modern and ultra-rich and can afford massive batteries for self-generated power. Town gas requires none, though if you live somewhere there is no piped gas, you need either a large pressurized steel tank or individual interchangeable bottles. With oil, the tank needn't be pressurized, but it is likely to be smellier. Coal and wood both need to be stored, and added periodically (and manually) to the fire, whereas electricity, gas and oil are merely a matter of operating a switch or tap. Coal needs to be mined, and wood to be cut and aged: under about 3 years old, it holds too much moisture to burn very efficiently. As with moving water about the place, solid fuels are quite a lot of work. In the absence of chain saws, wood is especially hard work.
     All right. You can afford (and have room for) some sort of non-electric boiler and if necessary for the fuel it takes. That's your hot water taken care of. Now let's look at heating.
     Central heating famously dates back to the Romans, though it appears to have been lost for over 1000 years. In its modern form it dates essentially from the 19th century, and even in many rich countries it did not become prevalent in private houses (as distinct from flats) until the late 20th century. Modernizing old buildings to incorporate central heating is once again expensive, and “old” can easily include houses as late as the 1950s. Electric heating, on the other hand, is comparatively easily installed. Electric string is a lot more biddable than waterproof pipes, and while an electric heater is likely to cost a lot more than a simple hot-water radiator, it is a lot easier to install.
     There's also the point, as with running water, that needless waste is a lot easier with central heating. Sure, you can turn off the radiator in a room that you don't use much, but if you do, it will take a while for the radiator to warm up when you turn it on, and even longer for the room to warm up. Easier to leave it on, if you (and the planet) can afford it. With easy-on, easy-off, fast-acting electric room heaters, the additional cost of electric heating may be non-existent or even negative as compared with gas, oil or solid fuel.
     So far I haven't even mentioned paraffin. This is because I had pretty much forgotten about it. Paraffin heaters were fiddly and time-consuming, especially when it came to wick-trimming; it wasn't a question of whether they smelled, but of how much; and reasonably draughty rooms were desirable if you wished to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. You could however cook on some of them, albeit quite slowly. When I was a small boy both my grandmother and my parents had portable paraffin heaters, which they used in much the same way as one might use an electric fan heater today; and even when I was a student in during my last year at university in 1973, the only heating in the attic bedroom in the flat I shared with two other young men was a paraffin heater.
     In the next fun-filled issue, I'll kick off with drains. You'll appreciate “kick off” when you read what my grandfather said about the house next to Aunt Fanny's in Cornwall. Yes, I really did have a (great)-aunt Fanny.


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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2017