Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Belshaw's World - fire sparks golden childhood memories

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday  3 March 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010.

At what age does nostalgia start setting in? There doesn’t seem to be a fixed date, but it has to be sufficiently far in the past for time to dull the bad bits, leaving the fun parts standing out.

I mention this because there seems to have been a fair bit around in the last week or so.

Indian blogging colleague Ramana had a post recalling the wild days of his youth as part of a bunch of wild Hyderabadi young men with plenty of hard earned money in their pockets and a passion for motor cycle racing. Then, New England blogger Le Loup had a post on primitive camping.

I always enjoy LL’s blog because he carries me into the arcane world of living history. I am not sure that I want to reproduce the frontier life style whether Australian or North American, but its quite fun to read about!

LL’s post started a dinner party conversation the other night about fires. Our hosts had recently returned to Australia after thirty years in Hong Kong. Andy grew up in Canberra in the days before the Lake, and recalled the huge bonfires they used to light on cracker night.

When we first moved into the house in Marsh Street, it had three wood fires; the fuel stove in the kitchen, plus open fires in the lounge and dining room. Down the road in Mann Street, my grandparents used gas for cooking, but also had two large open fireplaces in the lounge and dining room.

Marsh Street was a weatherboard cottage, uninsulated and somewhat exposed to Armidale’s cold westerlies. The wind used to rattle my bedroom window, with ever present drafts.

Mann Street was a much larger house in a more sheltered position. Still, it too could get very cold.

Winter life revolved around the fires. Some of my clearest memories as a child involve those fires: the lighting of, toasting bread over them, just lying in front on the rug.

Later, when my parents could afford it, Marsh Street was renovated. The lounge and dining room were combined, with the open wood fires replaced by oil heating: once plentiful wood had become more expensive, while oil was cheap.

Things change.

Oil prices rocketed as a consequence of the oil prices shocks of the 1970s. Not only was oil more expensive, but oil fires were now seen as environmentally unsound at a time when resources, and especially oil, were finite and projected to run out.

Over the next decade, oil fires across Armidale were removed and replaced by the now relatively cheaper and more environmentally friendly wood fire. With a much larger city, winter smoke pollution was one outcome.

I grew up with fire.

It wasn’t just the fires in the house, it was also the burning of rubbish in the back yard and the building of our own fires to play with.

The chook yard lay at the end of the garden.

After my parents decided that keeping chooks was no longer worth the effort, this became a playground.

There were two self-sown gums plus a self-sown pepper tree. We loved that pepper tree because of its smell and shade and always built our camp fires nearby. There we made tea, bad soups and cooked potatoes in the ashes.

We also got burnt from time to time, subsequently sitting in the kitchen with hands stuck in cold tea.

This wasn’t the end of exposure to fires.

Apart from burning off the grass at Glenroy, scouts involved lots of fires.

Fires at lunchtime at the Pine Forest, or other sites, with a chop stuck on a stick. Then more sophisticated fires and cooking on hikes in the country around Armidale.

How to light a fire with one match and no paper when the tinder was wet. Building a fire so that it would light quickly. Camping by a river and knowing which rocks to use for the fireplace: river rocks can explode with heat.

This obsession with fire has continued to the present day. Even after I came to Sydney, I taught the girls how to build a fire in the backyard and then sat there toasting marshmallows.


Finishing with two links.

If you want to find out about Ramana’s motor bike exploits -

For more on primitive camping -


Le Loup said...

An excellent post!
Regards, Le Loup.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, LL. I knew that you would appreciate this one. Not only were you part of the inspiration along with Ramana, but the texture of the memories is something that we have in common.

Rummuser said...

We have quite a few other things in common.

We kept chooks at home, though we called them chicken, when we were young. At some point of time, they started disappearing and finding replacements a nuisance, my father gave up the idea.

I learnt to light fires for campfires in they Boy Scouts, which came quite handy, much later in life when we had bonfires on winter nights while partying.

My brother bought his first home in Edinburgh at a place called the Ormidale Terrace. Just a small typo's difference and I am sure that the origins of both Armidale and Ormidale must be the same. I have spent many days in residence there and intend visiting again shortly.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Ramana. How interesting. I should write something on fires and partying!

There is a post here, I think. When you drop down to the detail of life, then the differences between countries disappears, the similarities between people increase. You and I may have more in common in some ways because we were part of the old empire, but I think that it's still true in a general sense. Liked your latest post, too.