June 15 2005

Keeping warm, before central heating made it too easy, was a risky business. There’s nothing like a chimney fire for turning your knuckles white.
We had them regularly. Sweeps were expensive, so my father would use Imps, stamp-sized packets of wonderstuff that promised to blast the flue clean safely but which inevitably turned nasty and resulted in the chimney doing a Stromboli while lava gushed into the grate and we sat on the edge of our seats with fixed stares.
When my family moved from the town centre in the late 1940s to live on Stafford’s first post-war housing estate at Silkmore, we said goodbye to all that and took a quantum leap into a hi-tech world: electric lighting, inside loo and the newfangled Beeston Boiler, which provided us with hot water on tap and which ran on anything from old shoes to sugar bags filled with damp, nutty slack.
These stoves, made in a Nottinghamshire factory, were state of the art and, before the council started building in Sidney Avenue and neighbouring streets, a luxury unknown in Stafford.
Our particular home fire never stopped burning.
A smart grey-enamel affair that dominated the dining room, it was at its most efficient fed on coke, but when supplies ran low, as they inevitably did in the thick of winter, anything was worth a try.
It was on such occasions that the shoe cupboard was raided. It was always well-stocked: my mother, a jumble sale regular, was in the habit of grabbing half a dozen bargain pairs to put by purely for their potential as fuel. She also saved every day’s potato peelings – rice and pasta hadn’t been invented – to “bank up” last thing before bed.
No matter what we had for breakfast (often porridge slowcooked overnight in an earthenware crock on top of the stove) it was always accompanied by the tantalising smell of baked spuds.
The heat generated while the family slept was never wasted. A clothes-horse full of washing was left in front every night to air, part of a laundry process that included using the stove as an improvised iron. My school tie was passed behind the chimney pipe and pulled back and forth against it until the creases disappeared.
After Sunday lunch and after tea on weekdays, the wireless beckoned.
We’d settle down to listen to Billy Cotton, Take it from Here, Educating Archie, Life with the Lyons or Arthur Askey and the doors of the Beeston would be opened. We all roasted and got chilblains.
At bedtime I resented leaving the rest of the family in that friendly glow, but as the youngest I had little choice.
Consolation was provided by a different sort of glow. On top of the landing just outside my bedroom door the Valor paraffin stove, shiny-black and smelling like an ironmonger’s shop, phut-phutted idly and I’d fall asleep looking at the ruby patterns on the ceiling cast there by its coloured grille.
Central heating? More efficient, inarguably, but it’s not easy to get enthusiastic about a radiator.


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