From the middle English ‘logge’, a variant of lugge, meaning pole or limb of tree.
We spent two hours yesterday lugging and stacking logs, and last night I slept like one. In fact, going to sleep was as easy as falling off one. A lot to be said for logs.
They make me think of the poet Richard Church, because our logs – though hardwood – are never from apple or pear. But I’ve always wanted pear because of one of his poems (I’ll get to it shortly).
Whatever our logs are made of – which tree, I mean – they smell comforting. Perhaps that’s because I grew up with an open fire, and this log burning stove of ours is not so far from that. My memory must be selective though, because the fire I grew up with smelled of coal, not logs, and my mother would burn everything a human being could burn on it. I remember her kneeling on the rug, first thing on a frosty December morning, crushing newspaper into little balls and stacking the small coals to get the fire ablaze. Then later, when it was roaring, she would emerge from the kitchen to tip a colander of potato peelings onto the flames. In winter that cut the heat dramatically and we shivered resentfully.
It’s often said that family life is disintegrating in the UK because folk don’t eat together any more. I don’t think it’s the food. I think central heating is to blame. When the only source of warmth in your house is the main fireplace, in the winter you sit with your family. When we were kids, hiding behind the sofa was always attractive but it was also cold. Soon we would be back at the feet of the grown-ups in front of the fire.
Upstairs, in my grandmother’s sitting room (she lived with us), there was an electric fire, and that was . . . acceptable. You could melt the chocolate on your digestive biscuit by holding it near to the bars, and then lick the deliciously melted surface off while watching TV. My grandmother presided over the family television and over the tin of sweets she kept in the cupboard. This was her lure to get us up there. But the comfort of the coal fire downstairs far outweighed three bars on an electric fire, especially when you weren’t supposed to have more than two of them lit.
At this time of the year, early October, we would have been scouring roads and hedgerows for fallen trees for the November bonfire. We didn’t call it Guy Fawkes. We called it Bonfire Night – because the bonfire was the thing – that huge pile of wood in the back field. I always thought of a bonfire as a good thing, a thing of joy, and in my mind the ‘bon’ was like bonbons – sweet and good. But I was wrong.
The bon in bonfire is from bane, and that’s what a bonfire did: it burned banes (bones) in circumstances not always favourable to their owners. Poor old Guy Fawkes, a terrorist before his time, was not burned, of course. But when we burned him in effigy (which we certainly did) ‘bonfire’ was the right word. Standing out at night beside the flames, hunkering on the grass beside the glowing embers – now that was something.
Back to the log stove. It is an enormous comfort. Fitted by Maddox and Potter from Abernethy, this thing works. The downside is the log lugging. You can’t get a car to the door of our house, and that means you can’t get a log truck there either. The logs have to be dumped about 50 yards away and we then wheelbarrow them along. It’s hard work. But in October sunshine, it’s a lovely kind of work.
Richard Church (back to the poet) wrote a whole essay on this topic. It’s called ‘Laying in Logs’. I found it recently – a beautiful piece of writing, lamenting the loss of the old ways when one bargained with a local farmer for the wood and he brought some when he felt like it. These days, says Church (writing in, or before, 1962) “I ring up an agency in the country town, and a week later get a ‘delivery note’ warning me (yes, warning me) that five tons of eighteen-inch logs will be delivered on such and such a date. And that’s the end of the human side of the matter. I might as well install an electric stove.”
But here it’s still quite human, frankly. I phone David Smith who lives just up the road and whose website is, reassuringly, still ‘in progress’. He phones me back and drives round with the logs within a couple of days. I count out the cash and stick it in an envelope. My other half puts on his boiler suit and gloves. We prepare to lug logs.
So here, finally, is Richard Church’s log poem. I can’t remember the title because I’ve drawn this from his essay which doesn’t mention it. Though dead for over four decades, he would forgive me, I think:
Now I come to the farmer about some logs.
He says in a casual way, ‘You can have pear.’
I stare at him for a moment. Shall I dare
Tell him I know that on the smithied dogs
In the brick hearth, black oakwood soaked in bogs,
Rose-roots, apple, ash with its swift, short flare,
And sparks thrown chimney-length to the open air,
Or elm that looks the part but easily clogs,
No firewood smells like pear? My conscience jogs
Me, saying, ‘Tell him that it isn’t fair.’
And so I do. But he just laughs and looks,
Thinking I’m crazy. ‘I don’t charge for smells,’
He says, ‘only for labour and the wood.
I’ll bet you got that notion out of books.’
But he is wrong: such perfume with its spells
Has never been described nor understood.