23 February 2013
Whenever I visited my French grandmother at Easter, we used to stay in her house in the countryside. It was still cold enough for us to need heating, which meant that we spent much of our time in the living room, huddled around a venerable stove. It looked like this:
although it had a chimney that came out of the back, which after a metre or so took a right-angle turn and exited through the living room wall.
During the day, my grandmother burned wood scrap – fallen branches, pinecones, bark, whatever lay around the garden after the winter storms – which she sent me out to collect on a regular basis. At night, though, she would load the stove up with coal, and it was my job to fill the coal scuttle. This meant taking the scuttle down to the cellar, where the coal was stored, to fill it up. This is what the scuttle looked like:
I loved that cellar. It was really the ground floor of the house – there was a door at the back which gave onto the road outside. From the garden side, though, you had to open a door with a large key, of the kind gaolers had in medieval times, go down a few stairs past dark corners where all the garden utensils were stored, and through a second door into the cellar proper. And there, stretched out in the semi-darkness, was a world of enchantment. For starters, the cellar had a dirt floor, which gave it a very particular smell. Then all around, strange and wonderful things loomed out of the dark. The coal was stored in an untidy pile to the left of the door, and beyond it was an old wooden table on which were stored my grandmother’s cache of goat cheeses bought from a nearby farm, the bottled fruit which she prepared during the summer, and a small wooden barrel in which she made her vinegar. Wonderful, wonderful, that vinegar was! It seemed to me total magic that my grandmother would pour the local red wine in, let it stand for a while, and hey-presto! out came delicious vinegar. I tried making vinegar of my own decades later in Vienna. The results were … mixed, let us say. Next to the vinegar barrel was the wine rack, good rough Beaujolais wines from the local vineyards. Over on the cellar’s right were piles of wood, various pieces of old furniture, ancient utensils whose use I could not figure out, an old bike or two, some hay, and I don’t know what else.
I always spent a few moments poking around in the corners seeing what new things I might stumble across, before filling up the scuttle and hauling it back up to the living room. The coal was, of course, dusty and left all your fingers black, but it came in nice, neat egg-shaped pieces. I never thought about it at the time, but I suppose this was pulverized coal pressed and molded; I remember the mold lines running around the pieces. Here’s what it looked like, in a coal scuttle; really heavy to carry! (appropriately enough, this is a photo from a museum; we are talking history here):
As for my English grandmother’s house, it had no coal. The use of coal had been banned in London after the last big smog of 1952. I remember my mother telling us about that smog when we were children, how she had had to walk down the road and almost panicked at not being able to see a thing. Soon thereafter, my parents escaped to the sunnier climes of Africa where I was born.
The house had no coal but still had a coal cellar, which was located under the pavement. A manhole in its ceiling had once allowed the coal-man to handily pour in the coal without coming into the house. My grandmother didn’t really use the coal cellar for much. The only thing I ever saw her put in there were the French cheeses which my father bought when we visited. He had a fondness for the smellier French cheeses like Roquefort:
My grandmother, in true English style, detested smells, so she banished his cheeses to the coal cellar between meals. Lucky for her that my father didn’t eat the aptly-named Crotte du diable, or devil’s droppings!
Truly, evilly smelly – in fact, it seems not to exist anymore, which is a tragedy because it tasted absolutely wonderful (you had to wash your hands very well after eating it, though …).
In any event, things changed and moved on. My French grandmother had a heart attack while picking strawberries in her vegetable garden and was eventually moved into a home, and the stove stopped being used. I came across coal one more time, at school, where we had an open fire in the school monitors’ room and a ration of coal to feed it with. The coal looked more like the stuff that’s dug out of the ground, rough chunks:
I liked to pick up a chunk and turn it in the light. Coal can be very beautiful, with black, glistening surfaces, reminiscent of obsidian:
I also liked to sit next to the fire and gaze deep into the glowing coals rather than study for my A-levels:
which may partially explain why I didn’t do too well in my A-levels.
After that, coal disappeared from my life, as it did from the lives of all us in Europe.
Then we came to China.
Some statistics, courtesy of Wikipedia : China is third in the world in terms of total coal reserves. It is the largest coal producer in the world, with the world’s largest (and deadliest) coal mining industry. It is also the largest consumer of coal in the world. Over half of the coal is used to make electricity, another third is used by industry, some is used in district heating plants, leaving a mere 3% to be used in residences. But you sure see that 3%.
You see them shoveling up huge chunks of coal – I was astonished at how big the chunks are; they have come straight from the coal face – you see them trucking it around, and piled up in street corners.
And more than anything you see China’s version of molded coal, which looks like this:
You see them transporting it around on the tricycles which I wrote about in an earlier post:
You see it piled up outside houses:
Then it’s burned in these special stoves:
which leaves behind the consumed molds which you see in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture. Cities’ rubbish is littered with these discards.
All this coal burning leaves a taste in the air, a taste which instantly takes me back to my early years in the UK, when you would walk through a town or village and smell the sharp, acidic taste of coal being burned.
And it gives rise to smog:
Not much different from London’s smogs.
I’m optimistic. Like the UK did, China will eventually get rid of the smogs – probably by stopping to burn coal.
London smog 1952: http://www.thefloridastandard.com/files/2013/02/smogdm1403_468x673.jpg
Crotte due diable: http://i.ebayimg.com/00/s/MTYwMFgxMTgy/$%28KGrHqF,!iUE8cj4nvorBPVlcwEB,!~~60_35.JPG
Bituminous coal: http://www.ua.all.biz/img/ua/catalog/1865574.jpeg
Chinese shoveling coal: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2011/12/21/business/coal/coal-blog480.jpg
Tricycle with molded coal: http://www.travel-pictures-gallery.com/images/china/beijing/beijing-0042.jpg
Molded coal China against the wall: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-ASl1mhpkw5k/TkRxVCEtoII/AAAAAAAAA14/pgggOooaKE0/s400/Hutong%2Bcoal.jpg
Stove for burning molded coal: http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5164/5261127408_36ccd1d718_z.jpg
Molded in coal China-consumed: http://farm1.staticflickr.com/68/424608074_e7f49e2f9a_z.jpg?zz=1
Beijing smog-2: http://feww.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/china-smog-17feb2013.jpg