He came in an immaculate van, opening up the back with a flourish and revealing the elaborate array of brushes, rods and cleaning materials, all laid out in symmetrical order. Even though his name was not Mr Soot (of Happy Families) it was fitting enough.
He wore blue plastic overshoes, laid a black cloth over the carpet, fitting it snugly round the hood of the vacuum cleaner, taped sticky duct paper to hold the cloth in place and set to work. After half an hour the chimney was swept and the traditional “dolly” or broom head was seen poking out of the chimney. I made a wish.
All winter, and most of Spring, I’ve had a fire behind my back as I work at my desk overlooking the Thames. As the chimney hadn’t been swept for a couple of years, I felt it might be danger of catching fire. I needn’t have worried. Mr North assured me it was pretty clean. I’ve burnt “Brazier” logs (compressed sawdust), dried rape stalk bricks and wood. There is nothing that lifts my spirits more than the sun shining, or a fire burning in the grate when it is cold and wet.
When I bought the flat 13 years ago I thought it had a working fireplace, but I was wrong. The chimney had been sealed off and had to be re-built at vast expense. Now I wouldn’t consider living in a place without a proper fireplace. The whole ritual of laying a fire, sweeping the hearth and ordering the fuel from Logs Unlimited is part of my routine.
And there are sweeps and sweeps. Mr North takes great pride in his work. He is scornful about some sweeps who undercut him but do a perfunctory job.
After his visit I read Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies again. It was quite a struggle to be re-acquainted with Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby, the little sweep Tom and his master Mr Grimes. Arguably Kingsley may have had an imagination to match Charles Dodgson’s but the passages of lyrical natural description can’t lift the morality tale above sickly sentimentality (“now my little man” etc.) and the muscular evangelicalism of a muddy tract. However, Kingsley was a fervent admirer of Charles Darwin and vociferously campaigned against child labour.
He saw great spiders there, with crowns and crosses marked on their backs, who sat in the middle of their webs, and when they saw Tom coming, shook them so fast that they became invisible. Then he saw lizards, brown and gray and green, and thought they were snakes, and would sting him; but they were as much frightened as he, and shot away into the heath. And then, under a rock, he saw a pretty sight—a great brown, sharp-nosed creature, with a white tag to her brush, and round her four or five smutty little cubs, the funniest fellows Tom ever saw. She lay on her back, rolling about, and stretching out her legs and head and tail in the bright sunshine; and the cubs jumped over her, and ran round her, and nibbled her paws, and lugged her about by the tail; and she seemed to enjoy it mightily. But one selfish little fellow stole away from the rest to a dead crow close by, and dragged it off to hide it, though it was nearly as big as he was. Whereat all his little brothers set off after him in full cry, and saw Tom; and then all ran back, and up jumped Mrs. Vixen, and caught one up in her mouth, and the rest toddled after her, and into a dark crack in the rocks; and there was an end of the show.