PAST LIVES II:  DRAINS, LOOS, COOKING AND LIGHTING


Once you have running water, you have to get rid of it.  If the water has already passed through you on its way to the drain, in particular, you ideally need a specialized form of drain: a toilet, though this is less of a problem than it might seem until you adopt the flushing water closet. Of course it was always a good idea to pee on the compost heap, when practical, but if you kept pigs in your basse-cour (yard) or a horse in your stables they could not be relied upon to utilize porcelain receptacles: a well drained yard, preferably with at least one soakaway, was the only practical choice.
     You could use a chamber-pot yourself, and (once again) empty it on the compost heat, but contrary to popular belief, these were normally used only for liquid waste except by young children or in case of sickness. Otherwise you'd visit the privy or House of the Dawn. Initially these were  just holes in the ground, ideally with a small shed over them, which might well be periodically moved about the garden. My mother, as a small girl in the 1930s, was however fascinated by her father's explanation about how they managed in the house adjacent to her aunt's, where there was not even a privy. “What do they do, then, daddy?” she asked. He replied “Shit over a stick and kick it around until they lose it.” I'd love to have met him but he was killed on the Russian convoys during World War Two, years before I was born.
     Later, though, soakaways became more usual, especially in villages and cities. These were lined with special bricks or tiles, allowing slow diffusion of the waste into the surrounding soil. Ours was a two-holer, with a long bench-type seat, and the area beneath was a bit less than a metre deep (three feet or less) and maybe two by two and a half metres in area: 6-7 feet by 8 feet. It was also, as already noted maybe 20 metres from the well (which is admittedly cut in rock) and, because the house is built into the side of a hill, about 3 metres (10 feet) higher. This is however a marked improvement on a couple of the houses we looked at in Loudun, where the indoor thunderbox was dead level with, and no more than 3 metres from, the well.
     Let;s go back to less unsavoury considerations, though. In the days before running water, you didn't really need to worry about drainage too much. It was just too much hassle to shift large quantities of it about, so you normally had to worry only about jugfuls and bucketfuls. Either could simply be dumped on the garden, or on the street (along with all kinds of other things). At the most basic, you'd just empty it out of the window. This is reputedly the origin of the old expression “gardy-loo” or gardez l'eau”: “watch out for the water”, the domestic equivalent of a golfer's “Fore!” The same expression was allegedly also used when the eau in question was euphemistically applied to the contents of a chamber pot: hence “loo” for toilet.
     In old houses in France they were sometimes rather more refined when it came to mere dirty water from the kitchen, and you can see little stone spouts sticking out of the wall of what was once the kitchen. There are still one or two in my village, and unusually there's one in the next village on the first storey (American: second floor). Obviously you'd take care when walking past such a thing. Plenty of houses in France still have septic tanks or even just soakaways: every now and then, the main street of a whole village or (more likely nowadays) a hamlet is dug up while the authorities install mains drainage. Often connexion is optional, and you have to pay for it. Some therefore stick with their fosses septiques. A fosse is a ditch, and septique is not hard to translate. These can of course handle flushing water closets as well.
      Let us now turn, however, to the considerably more appetizing matter of cooking food; which is, after all, quite similar to the question of heating water. Obviously electricity and gas are super-convenient. In fact, we prefer bottled gas to electricity (and always used mains gas when we had it). Oil, coke and wood are another matter. We had a tiny 1920s coke-burning kitchen range in our last house in England, mainly as a “feature” in a huge 19th century kitchen fireplace. We used it mainly for two things: roasting lamb in front of the fire (meat held vertically on a projecting shelf in front of the fire basket and rotated manually from time to time) and baking beef in the oven, very very slowly. The oven never got hot enough to “roast” any other way, but if we could spare a whole day with periodical attention to the very small coal basket we could cook superb rare ribs of beef. They'd be cooked all the way through, but also rare all the way through. The little range was also good for scrambled eggs, because the whole surface of the range was hot, though the temperature varied quite a lot according to where you placed the pan.
     Even with the finest oil, wood or coal ranges, though – for example, Aga and Rayburn – you are looking at a lot of work in stoking and (with wood and coal); in cleaning; and also at impressively long response times, because they take a long time to heat up. Again, you have the wide variations in surface temperature, which can be extremely useful, and if you want fierce heat you can remove the cast-iron plates that cover the fire chamber and cook directly over the fire; but the fire had better be well stoked when you do.
     Moving on from cooking to lighting, we flick electric lights on and off with hardly a thought; though it has to be said that some people (especially children) give more thought to turning them on than to turning them off. Like paraffin heaters, oil lamps require periodical refilling and fairly frequent wick-trimming, and they smell. Nor do they cast much light, though they are a marked improvement over candles (the lighting of which, without matches, is more of a rigmarole than one might wish). Speaking of rigmaroles, I have a paraffin pressure lantern, which yields an excellent light but which is very hard work indeed. You need to soak a lighting ring (“the guv'nor's tonsils”) in methylated spirits to pre-heat the (extremely fragile) mantle; pump up the reservoir; light it, without damaging said mantle; and, of course, you lose the pressure whenever you re-fill it.
     And yet, it was only a few years before my father died in 2016 that he told me about how, when he first met my mother, her parents' house had no electricity: it was lit by oil lamps until 1948, a couple of years before I was born. For that matter, in 1960 my mother and brother and I stayed in an hotel in St. Paul's Bay, Gozo, that was still partially lit by oil lamps even though the ground floor (and the whole of the Maltese mainland) was electrified. Then again, in 1959 my parents persuaded My Lords Commissioners to put a paraffin range in their married quarters (my father was a naval officer) because at Christmas in Malta in those days both the gas pressure and the mains electricity voltage fell to unusably low levels.
     Let's go back to another aspect of food now. There is absolutely no doubt that today, we refrigerate far more things than ever we did even in my childhood in the 1950s. In fact, when I was a very small boy, my maternal grandmother did not even have a refrigerator. When my parents bought a new electric refrigerator in about 1958, they had their old paraffin-powered refrigerator (!)  converted to electricity and gave it to her.
   Imagine, though, a life with no refrigeration at all. To be sure, milk wasn't much of a problem because it was delivered daily, and no-one in their right mind refrigerated eggs (I still don't) let alone pickles. Fantasies about cool larders are all very well but you needed to be pretty well-to-do to have a house big enough to accommodate one: my grandmother was a war widow who brought up three children and was living in a tiny 1930s semi by the time I was old enough to remember her, though her son, my uncle, still lived with his mother into his early 20s. Even if you did have a proper cool larder, it wasn't normally all that cool at the height of summer. For everyone else, to quote the same grandmother, “butter goes mad twice a year”, rock solid in winter (she had no central heating) and semi-liquid in summer.
     Quite apart from the things that keep a lot longer in the 'fridge, there are also plenty of luxuries and semi-luxuries that are better chilled. Never mind the fizzy wine or the continental beers: even a jug or carafe of water is a lot more refreshing when it's seriously cold. For that matter, gherkins are crunchier too.
     Then there's the freezer. I even freeze bread. I can refresh half a loaf or a whole loaf in the (electric) oven, and it's very nearly as good as it is when it comes fresh that morning from the good bakery in the next village, and rather better than fresh bread from the local bakery in my own village. Shepherd's pie? Make two, freeze one (or both). The same is true for stuffed marrow: blanch the marrow and freeze it, cook the stuffing and freeze it (separately), then thaw them out and combine the two. We freeze surfeits of quinces and pears (again blanched). Then there's the stuff we buy frozen: New Zealand lamb; fish; peas and beans; and ice creams and sorbets. We make ice cubes too (back to the drink again).
     Let's end, then, with a glass of iced tea as it might have been made in the early 20th century by the people who lived in my house at the time. First, fetch the water from the well or pump; or (preferably) send a daughter to get it. Heat it in a kettle on the wood-fired stove. Keeping the stove alight and ready for use would be another job for a daughter, but cutting the wood (axes and hand saws, remember – no power tools) would be a job for the son(s): it's easy to see that you needed a fair number of children, especially by the time you were too old and feeble to do any heavy work yourself. Infuse the tea (expensive stuff) and let it cool. Now the ice. Ah, yes, the ice. Given that these were servants' quarters, with the kitchen in them, there might have been an ice-box. This would depend on having a large block of ice delivered at least once a week: certainly more, if you kept chipping bits off to cool your drinks in warm weather. Incidentally, big blocks of ice are heavy, slippery and hard to handle. I know this because you could get 50-55lb lb (18-20 kg) blocks of ice at the U. S. Navy Post Exchange when I lived in Bermuda in the 1960s. The traditional way of carrying ice blocks is with huge, clawed, scissor-type tongs.
   Without the icebox? Well, it ain't gonna be iced...