Apple Tree Cottage
23 April, 1974
Today is St Georges Day, and we should celebrate it more. We do tend to forget our patron saint. Is that because George killed a dragon and put himself firmly in the realm of myth? St George is also the patron of Catalonia, where he is certainly not forgotten though the celebrations there are more about books and roses than the saint himself. In Catalonia, which Orwell paid homage to, today is the Day of the Book, and each man gives his girl a rose and she gives him a book in return. You might feel that he escapes lightly, the prices of books being what they are, but on that one day of the year the price of a rose is sky high in Barcelona, and so things end up about equal.
But now back to Berringford. I have just had a long chat with Uncle Jasper. He always has time to talk, and when he does, out comes the pipe, for men still smoke pipes here. They also still wear hats, which is a custom fast disappearing elsewhere. His preparation for pipe smoking is an unvaried ritual, and my uncle seems to enjoy it as much as the smoking itself. He goes slowly through the ceremony of searching for tobacco and hunting for matches, and then packing the bowl and pressing down the tobacco not too much but just enough. Then he strikes a match. Eventually comes the signal of success when the smoke curls up into the air. This is awaited in suspense like the white ‘fumata’ when a Pope is finally chosen. And, talking of smoke, there is usually a bonfire in his garden on the piece of open ground beyond the cabbage patch.
A bonfire is pleasant to look at from a distance but do not get too close to it! The experienced bonfire maker knows this and will stand, contented, about twenty yards away, well out of trouble. I remember when Uncle Jasper’s young grandson, Ben, was here on a visit from London. He begged to be allowed to light the bonfire. There was a huge pile of grass, branches and leaves ready to burn for it was autumn, and the young lad was eager to show his prowess and skill. Uncle Jasper gave him the box of matches, and he and I retired twenty paces.
First Ben crouched down on the wrong side of the bonfire with the wind in his face instead of behind him. The first two matches blew out immediately. When he did manage to get a match to the paper, the flames leapt out, and he jumped about a yard backwards. Things became interesting when the fire reached the leaves and gave out a column of thick smoke. The basic rule of a bonfire is that no matter where you stand, the wind will always blow the smoke in your face, but Ben had not yet grasped this essential. He dug his fork enthusiastically into the grass on the smokeless side, just to shake the fire up a bit, but the wind, seeing this, veered immediately and Ben was invisible for a few seconds. Then he emerged coughing and rubbing his eyes. “Ah, the wind has changed direction” he muttered, and he went round to the other side of the fire and started there. No sooner had he loaded his fork with some heavy branches than the wind changed again and once more Ben disappeared from view. In fact, he could see so little that he started walking towards the fire instead of away from it. I shouted to him, and he turned round, dropped the branches and the fork and, flailing his arms, made for clearer air. “The wind must have changed again.” he said. What he had not grasped is that on bonfire days the wind does nothing but change. Any other time it will blow constantly from the west or from the east for 24 hours non-stop, but the moment it sees anyone with a box of matches making for a bonfire, it starts to go round and round in circles to see what havoc it can create.
Ben soon learnt, however, as we all learnt, and now he is as skilful a bonfire maker as any of us. He joins us for a chat about twenty yards away from the cause of all the trouble, and lets the wind do what it will.
I have a pile of weeds in my orchard and think I’ll wander over there now and start a fire. There seems to be no wind at all at the moment but no doubt that will change when I strike the first match. We shall see.