Thursday, 20 September 2012

'Making Fire' by A.L. Berridge



Historical novelists are generally a charitable bunch, but I suspect we each have our one pet subject that brings us out in historical hives when we see somebody else GET IT WRONG.
Mine, I’m afraid, is Fire.


Unfortunately it’s also the subject writers are most likely to fudge. This particular rant has been sparked by a scene in a Regency romance where the protagonists were strolling happily along a country lane – and then the hero ruined everything by lighting a cigar.

'Regency Love' by Dylan Meconis

The poor lovers hadn’t a chance after that. They could flirt as wittily as they liked, they could even thrash about madly in the bushes, but I was seeing only the glowing red tip of that cigar and thinking – HOW? How did he do that? Was he quietly rubbing two sticks together all the time they were talking? Did he whip out a monocle and catch the rays of the dying sun on his conveniently pre-charred handkerchief? Was the interesting bulge in his tight fitting breeches really a tinderbox, and when he set the heroine ‘on fire’ was he doing it literally?

I'm afraid I suspect the writer had in mind something as deceptively simple as this picture by the scarily talented illustrator Dylan Meconis. And unless the lover also had an asbestos bottle filled with sulphuric acid in his pocket, that simply could not happen.

I'm possibly going into geek-overdrive here, but it’s still a worryingly common mistake, even with writers whose research is otherwise impeccable. I’ve seen medieval heroes escape captivity with only the clothes they stood up in – and start their life on the run by making a fire in the woods. I’ve ‘critted’ a manuscript containing a brilliant description of a seventeenth century bomb – which the villain then lights by ‘striking’ a match. What is it about this one thing that shuts down our usual historical instincts and replaces them with a mindset where ‘making fire’ is an easy, even casual thing, about which nobody thinks twice?

Part of the problem may be that a ‘striking’ match is so ‘low-tech’ it’s hard to believe they weren’t invented until 1826. Another may be simply linguistic, in that not everyone will realize that the 'match' Guy Fawkes was caught carrying would have been only a length of 'matchcord' - hempen rope coated to make it ‘hold fire’ once it had been lit by something else.

17th century 'matchcord'

 Some of the problem may be visual. Sulphur sticks look like modern matches, they go back to the sixth century in China and do indeed ‘catch fire’ – but again, they need to be lit first. Like rope match, these are merely ‘fire-carriers’ rather than ‘fire-makers’, which is perhaps why even the first successful friction match was called a ‘lucifer’.

So how did people actually make fire before that? 

By a method that takes us right back to the dawn of time – the friction between flint and steel. No-one knows when the first caveman discovered sparks could be produced by rubbing flint against iron pyrites, but ‘flint and steel’ immediately replaced the method of ‘rubbing two sticks together’, and created a technique we still use to this day.




Honestly – we do. The fuel in this lighter is modern petrol, but the spark is produced by the action of a little steel wheel on a tiny fragment of flint. It’s effectively a modern tinderbox.




And the tinderbox is where it really started.

The ingredients are simple: a ‘steel’ in a bow shape to fit round the knuckles, a rugged piece of flint, some form of ‘tinder’ (amadou, dry hemp, ‘char-cloth’, or any other material that will ‘catch’ a falling spark) and either kindling or a sulphur ‘spunk’ to bring the spark to bloom.

 How it works is fairly obvious. It’s deliberately dark, but this little video starts with the striking of a spark by flint and steel, the catching of it in char-cloth, and then the transfer by sulphur stick to a beeswax candle.



If you can endure the whole 90 seconds, you’ll also see a musketeer using ‘slow match’ to ignite his charge. I’m sorry the fire-making part is speeded up, but we had to cut out the bits of my husband swearing when he gashed his knuckles on the flint. 

But perhaps I should have left them in – because in reality fire-making is both slow and difficult.  Even experienced re-enactors can be nervous of making fire at a public demonstration because it so rarely works first go. That’s what bothers me when historical fiction gets it wrong – not the lack of technical detail, but the fact that fire-making is tricky, that tinder could be expensive and hard to find, and that whatever different technique is used it can’t ever be casual. If we miss that, we’re not slipping up on a detail, we’re mistaking an entire way of life.

Fire has always been precious, and its original importance is beautifully illustrated in William Golding’s The Inheritors, which follows a band of Neanderthals on their summer migration. The ‘old woman’ of the group carries what is only ever referred to as her ‘burden’, but is in fact a clay pot containing the fire they need to keep them alive. The impression we have is that none of them have fire-making skills, and if the fire ever went out they could never relight it.

The advent of the tinderbox changed all that, but the value of fire persisted through to the 18th century. Once lit, fires were kept burning forever. At night they would be ‘banked’ for safety, using a metal hood drilled with tiny holes which the French called a ‘couvre-feu’ – and the English corrupted to a ‘curfew’. 

The original ‘curfew call’ had nothing to do with martial law, but was simply a night-watchman reminding the citizens it was time to cover their fires for the night.

It sounds wasteful of fuel, but only one fire was needed for a household, and from that single source would come all the hundred other usages needed in the course of a day. Burning coals or timber from one fire would be carried in a bucket to light another. A taper from the fire would light a lamp or a candle, a spill from the candle would light a pipe or a cigar. That’s why we never see Mr Darcy or the Scarlet Pimpernel hacking away with their tinderboxes – the fire is already lit, and all they ever need to do is borrow a little from an existing flame. 

And how important it makes that one fire! For Golding’s Neanderthals the location of the fire defined their home, and in many ways it still does today. The Romans used the word ‘hearth’ to define a home, and it still forms the centrepiece for most houses built before 1970. Central heating has mostly removed the physical need for a fire, but nothing (for me) compensates for the spiritual loss. I can still remember when a family sitting room wasn’t arranged around the position of a television, but around something like this:


 Fire transcends its physical properties, which is why our attitudes to it remained unchanged for so long. The invention of cheap matches should have done away with most of them, but am I the only one who remembers seeing on her grandparents’ mantelpiece something that looked like this?

It’s a jar of spills. My grandmother used them to light the candles, and my grandfather to light his cigars. In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, a key clue actually depends on the position of a jar of spills on a mantelpiece. That seems ridiculous in a novel set during the First World War, but fire was still precious, and even a match wouldn’t be wasted if there was an existing fire source to be used.

That’s the mindset we need to hold when we’re writing historical fiction. I made a whopping great mistake in an early draft of Honour and the Sword when I had a character light his pipe using a tinderbox – when there was a fire already lit in the room. After much thought I actually left it in, because it perfectly illustrated the character’s agitation at the time – but it still originated in a mistake, and one I was determined not to make again. In In the Name of the King I had an officer bring his volunteer musketeers a handful of matches already lit, because it would have made more sense to light them all from one flame than to hang about while a dozen women all got busy with tinderboxes.

That’s what I love most about writing historical fiction – getting inside the heads of long dead characters and seeing a problem as it was in their day. I’ve even learned from it, and when I ran out of matches and was reduced to that hideously messy business of lighting a cigarette from the gas cooker, I put on my ‘historical head’ and made a spill out of screwed paper instead. I used that to light a slow-burning candle, which gave me a light whenever I needed it for the rest of the night. One fire to light a dozen others.

Or a million. Few or none will remain of those fires that were once kept burning day and night, but the idea remains and its spiritual power is as strong as ever. Candles are still lit and kept burning to maintain a vigil. A torch lit from the Olympic flame is carried hand to hand to keep the same fire burning all over the world. Unlike ourselves, a fire that is fed will never die.


 Neither will its history. History for most of us is a broken chain, a series of fragments connected by gaps. Our landmarks might be those of 1066 And All That, lurching from the Roman Occupation to the Memorable King Henry VIII with only minor stops for Alfred to burn the cakes and John to lose his laundry in the Wash. The landmarks of a specialist can be even wider spread, and my dad had Victorian Church History at one end and Mediaeval Law at the other with only the vaguest blur in between.

Fire is different, the universal element that has been with us all the way. We can follow it through our steel-and-flint lighters to our grandfather’s spills, through the lucifers of ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ to the matchlock musket, through the sulphur matches and tinderboxes all the way back to a caveman rubbing two sticks together and making a spark that would change the world.

And when we can stand on the edge of that world and see right back in time to its beginning, then that, for me, is when history itself catches fire.

***

26 comments:

Katherine Langrish said...

I love this post! A great example of how you have to think small and get into the details to bring the past to life. Thankyou!

Mary Hoffman said...

What a wonderful essay on fire-lighting! A real object lesson for all writers of historical fiction,

The Virtual Victorian said...

This is brilliant - and something we too seldom think about.

H.M. Castor said...

A cracking post - so important, so thought-provoking... and moving too. I love it. Thank you.

Claire King said...

What a wonderful, fascinating post! Thank you for this!

Elizabeth Hopkinson said...

Good essay -and so true. Fire lighting is hard! Just noticed this week that Celtic night prayers include asking God to guard the fire. Also was shown a little hatch in the corridor in a house in Shirakawa-go (Japan) where some poor soul had to lie all night to make sure the fire was OK.

Ann Turnbull said...

A wonderful post - thank you for reminding us how our most basic needs can never be taken for granted. (And now I feel I must re-read all my books to make sure I haven't made a fire-related mistake!)

Derek Birks said...

Whilst I was aware of the problem and occasionally asked the "how" question myself, I can't recall anyone explaining the issues so eleoquently.

Blythe Gifford said...

Absolutely correct. I've grappled with the fire problem myself in writing the medieval time period. We forget how difficult it was just to stay warm and fed in those days. It was a full time job, and not an easy one.

Imogen said...

All so true! And I'd never put thought about the derivation of curfew before. Great post...

Eve Edwards said...

My favourite mistake in a Regency romantic novel is finding English rivers populated by turtles thanks to one writer's imagination (i'm guessing she lives in America). I dread to think what she did about fire...

Caroline Lawrence said...

Not just informative but very witty!

I loved all the information in this post as I also go into geek-overdrive.

I must also hold up my hand and say GUILTY! In one of my Roman Mysteries I have a character light a "sulphur-stick" by striking it. At least he didn't use it to light a cigar. :P

Thank goodness I can have "lucifers" in my Western novels!

alberridge said...

Wow! Thank you all so much for these lovely comments. I was a bit worried about this post, because I know no-one here needs to be told any of it, but it was great to be allowed just one little rant.

And Elizabeth - thank you so much for adding those details. I wish I'd known about the Celtic prayer - is it something I can find online? And the Japanese hatch is wonderful. What a very sensible (if inhumane) arrangement - especially if the house was made of paper...

Eve - I love the turtles! You're being very charitable in not naming the book...

alberridge said...

Caroline - thank you so much. And I know, those sulphur sticks are so confusing. They look exactly like yellow-headed matches, and the Wikipedia entry definitely implies they could 'make fire'. I absolutely assumed the same as you did at first, and was only saved by a youtube reenactment video showing someone using a sulphur stick to pick up a spark from char-cloth.

I owe SO MUCH to re-enactors!

Penny Dolan said...

Excellently informative and useful, not only in the practical description but in stressing the past view of hearth,flame and fire.

anny cook said...

Wonderful post! And I'm so glad to find out I got it right in my story set in the 1820's! Yay! But I will copy and save this post for reference...

Victoria Lamb said...

Too right. Writing Tudor fiction, I'm constantly obsessing about how they would suddenly have a light/light a fire in a dark forest, for instance, or if they have no hands free for also carrying a lit candle, and have to go to silly lengths sometimes in order to avoid scenes where someone needs a light quickly at three in the morning and then spends twenty minutes kindling one from a tinderbox.

So if you come across one of my scenes with slightly awkward candle or spill-lighting taking place in unlikely circumstances - 'oh, the fire was luckily still smouldering' (at 3am?!) - you'll know why. Thanks for an interesting post.

adele said...

One of the best posts on this blog ever! And I'm like Ann T and must go back and make sure I haven't made fire bishes in my novels. Fascinating stuff. You do know so much!

Sarah McIntyre said...

So interesting! I didn't realise Regency people on a stroll wouldn't have had matchbooks in their pockets.

Mark Burgess said...

Lovely post, Louise, thank you. I'm sure I dug up something very like that striking steel in the garden some time back (without knowing what it was). I must see if I still have it. (I'm the sort that is delighted digging up bits of clay pipe or pottery.)

I remember lighting gas stoves years ago using a very simple flint and steel. The handle was a bit of springy steel and you just squeezed it and got a spark. Worked every time. And my grandmother had a jar of spills too!

Sue Hyams said...

Excellent post, and one I shall definitely refer back to. Thanks!

Stroppy Author said...

This is fantastic, Louise. Both erudite and entertaining, as ever. My grandmother used spills to light her gas cooker (from the fire) and my uncle used them to light his pipe (from the gas cooker).

As for the difficulty of starting a fire... I accidentally set a Moleskin book smouldering in my office after leaving a magnifying glass by the window.

Didn't the Greeks and Romans use glass to light fires? Archimedes described using mirrors to set fire to enemy ships. And the Church fathers talk about using a glass vessel filled with water to focus the sun's rays and start a fire.

Margaret Pemberton said...

Brilliant blog. I will no longer feel guilty when I shout 'no, it' wrong', especially when reading an American writing about British history

alberridge said...

Wow! Sorry, I went offline for a week and have only just caught up with all these brilliant comments. Thank you so much, everyone.

Anny - you ARE brave doing the 1820s. You'll know a lot more than I do as to how expensive frictions were when they first came out, eg if they were within the reach of ordinary people. A very exciting time.

Victoria - I think we must be sisters. I stress about this kind of thing all the time. At least in Tudor I think it's a pretty safe bet the fire WOULD still be smouldering at 3am and hopefully all night, banked up and covered under a curfew. Still, you often end up with the problem of making your characters go to the kitchen to light a candle!

Adele, Sarah and Sue - thank you so much. I feel a total fraud now, because before I started writing this stuff I wouldn't have batted an eyelid at a Regency matchbook either. It just doesn't seem to be one of those things ever mentioned in school history -yet it affected everything.

Mark - yay for your grandparents! And I do hope you've still got that steel. A genuine fire steel would be a lovely thing to have.

SA - Yes indeed about making fire with glass. The snags are that a) it doesn't work if there isn't any sun (which rules out most historical novels set in the UK for a start), b) for a large chunk of history glass was expensive and unlikely to be carried around naturally, and c) it takes even longer than flint and steel.

But disaster about the Moleskine! I hope it didn't have one of your books written in it...

alberridge said...

And thank you, Margaret! I'm relieved to know I'm not the only 'It's wrong!!!' geek out there...

Security Guards said...

This particular rant has been sparked by a scene in a Regency romance where the protagonists were strolling happily along a country lane – and then the hero ruined everything by lighting a cigar. Fire Guards