This past week I read Dominic Reeve’s Smoke in the Lanes. The book is a first-hand account of the lives of Romani in England during the mid-1950s, which marked the end of the era of horse-drawn wagons. It’s an interesting read if you’re at all interested in itinerant lifestyles.
Toward the end of the book the author describes lighting his daily fire in very wet conditions:
Nobody had collected any wood for the morning’s fire, so I scrambled into the middle of a tangle of thorn-bushes, the limbs of which were heavy with rain that showered down on me; and within a matter of minutes I was completely soaked. I did not possess a raincoat and my old jacket and cord trousers were inadequate to withstand the water. Nevertheless, I managed to gather quite an imposing amount of dead wood, all sodden, and I returned with it to the site of the previous night’s fire. I took a stump of candle from my pocket and broke it in half, then I lit one half and set it upright in the watery ashes, piling some twigs and small wood round and above it. When I had placed sufficient twigs above the tiny flame I laid the other half of the candle stump in the wood directly above the flame so that the heat from below gradually rose upwards, melting the wax which then caught fire and ignited the soggy twigs. It is an old Romani trick, and a very successful one.
Le Loup often talks about carrying a beeswax candle in his 18th century fire kit. I always assumed that this would be used to keep a flame below damp tinder to dry it out, similar to how today we might take advantage of the long burn time of cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly to light slightly damp materials. It never occurred to me to break the candle in two and melt the second half above for even more heat. Neat trick!
None but the Romanies, or perhaps the few remaining tramps, can know how great a comfort is afforded by a fire. Once its warming tongues lick upwards into the pile of sticks and one’s tingling, numbed fingers are eased in its glow, one experiences great pleasure and satisfaction. It is a creative, aesthetic, pleasure. On countless grey winter mornings, often in company with other travellers, I have sat huddled close to an immense [fire], my front glowing and steaming with heat and my back running with rain or heaped with snow. The fire is everything to us. With it we can cook, eat, survive and live: without it we should perish.