I wasn’t called up until the second, third or fourth year of the war. When my call-up came I ignored it. I argued that a neurotic coward like me would be more a hindrance than help to the armed forces. And a life without privacy would be like going back to a public school.
I lay low, became a deserter. I changed my name, became Peter Black. But to the Gas Board I was J. Emersley, which might pass for J. Amberley written illegibly. (When I pay my gas bills I’m still J. Emersley so I pay it in cash.) And these were the days of Identity Cards, and on your Identity Card your name was your name, yes a name: unalterable.
The quote above is taken from the unpublished journal of A.S.J. Tessimond. I’ve written about the poet’s use of pseudonyms elsewhere, but there is another aspect of this anecdote that I feel needs further exploration, and that (surprisingly) is the poet’s relationship with the Gas Board.
Bear with me.
You see, it appears (I’m fairly sure of this) that at some point during the 1950s, Tessimond’s gas fire in some way broke. It was certainly old – a friend refers to it as ‘obsolete’ – and the above quotation makes clear a somewhat unusual relationship with a utility company. From what I can tell, Tessimond found himself unable to have the appliance fixed, or repaired, owing to his deception. By the time that section of the journal was written, the war had been over for around fifteen years, and it strikes me that it wouldn’t have been impossible for him to amend the name on the bill.
But I think the decision not to rectify the issue represents something else, and that is the role that the Gas Board played in his life – and perhaps more broadly speaking, the role that gas-fires played in altering the lives of people in the twentieth century. If I wished to make a grand statement about this (and to be honest, I don’t – I’m just kicking around a couple of half thought through ideas here) I would say that in the early twentieth century, the gas-fire directly led to an increase in social deviance, particularly amongst upper-working, and lower-middle class, urban, single males.
That’s a view just waiting to be shot to pieces, but my (flimsy) argument is this – gas-fires seem to have been taken up particularly in tenement accommodation and other multiple-occupancy buildings. The great advantage that the gas-fire had was its cleanliness; for this group of people it meant that there was no longer the need for the daily visit of the charwoman, meaning that flats could for the first time become completely private spaces in which arcane pleasures could freely be explored: the collection of erotic postcards, for instance, or homosexual desires, or murder – to name but a few.
The gas-fire became a means of solitary life, and as such, became an emblem of this in the literature of the early twentieth century. The only intrusion into this private space, might be the unrequested intervention of the Gas Board. In Tessimond’s poem ‘Letter from Luton’, the Gasworks almost seems like the hand of God, gripping him in a strangle-hold. It is upon ‘the breezes | From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes | Like a damp frigid hand on my neurosis’. The Gasworks is the ultimate fear over all – worse even than the neurotic fear of ‘red-eyed necrophiles’ in the poem. A similar view is put forward in John Rodker’s poem ‘Gas Fire’ (1920):
The sparse blue flame
pulses and pours
through salamander asbestos,
annulated like arteries—
Like a seraph’s blood
…..[when he sees the sylph]
rushes fast and faster
and whelms in white fire.
Or—like an earthworm
pulsing a thin lymph.
Or like a message
through nerves hid in vertebræ.
The sparse blue flame purrs,
purrs loudly, gently… hissing
forced from what outer spheres;
god the gasometer.
But elsewhere in the literature of the period, the everyday appliance of the gas-fire forms an near alter-like form upon which the lonely may worship. It is a much-used image for Patrick Hamilton, who uses it to mark Julia’s solitude in Twopence Coloured (1928) and in Hangover Square (1941) refers to ‘the altar of a gas-fire in Earl’s Court’, elsewhere in the novel writing:
On countless occasions he had seen her like this, staring into her gas-fire at seven o’clock, waiting to go out and get lit up again. That gas-fire – what sinister bleak misery emanated from its sighing throat and red, glowing asbestos cells! To those whom God has forsaken, is given a gas fire in Earl’s Court.
God, the gasometer, bestows the gas-fire to those he has foresaken. This idea is similarly to be found in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) where, before the gas-fire, foresaken and lonely Julia sits sewing by night, or lighting it only for her visiting brother:
There was a divan bed that could very nearly be mistaken for a sofa, and a little round fumed oak table, and two ‘antique’ hardwood chairs, and an ornamental footstool and a chintz-covered armchair — Drage’s: thirteen monthly payments — in front of the tiny gas-fire; and there were various brackets with framed photos of father and mother and Gordon and Aunt Angela, and a birchwood calendar — somebody’s Christmas present — with ‘It’s a long lane that has no turning’ done on it in pokerwork. Julia depressed Gordon horribly. He was always telling himself that he ought to go and see her oftener; but in practice he never went near her except to ‘borrow’ money.
This connection between the gas-fire and loneliness recurs through a number of texts of the period, and I think it’s fair to say that it is a literary association rather than the view of the average home-owner. Few can have looked at the ‘sparse blue flame’ pulsing through the asbestos grate and considered it to be the cause of their loneliness, robbing them of the visit from coal-man and charwoman – providing them with just enough heat for a visiting brother, but no more – and this, I think crucially: measuring out the supply of heat, allowing it to be turned off completely, meant that the hearth was no longer the image of constant warmth (the heart, as it is often rendered in nineteenth century literature) in the home.
Yet here, in a 1943 Mass Observation report into psychological factors in home-building, it is the independent means provided by such a device which one anonymous respondent identifies when asked ‘What does HOME mean to you?’
It must be comfortable, particularly as regards warmth in the winter and facilities for cooking. A bed-sitting room with a gas fire that will also cook, a divan, a chair and a few books make a perfectly good home for one.
The description here is practical, but love and familial warmth is not supposed to be practical. This inventory is not much different to the contents of Tessimond’s own room, and it is marked that the fire renders ‘a perfectly good home for one’ but no more. However the gas-fire is not without romance, as demonstrated here in Stevie Smith’s poem ‘The Persian’:
The gas fire
Seemed quite a friend
Such a funny little humming noise it made
And it had a name, too, carved on it you know,
‘The Persian’. The Persian!
Ha ha ha; ha ha.
Now Agnes, pull yourself together.
You and your friends.
Here, the appliance takes the form of a Romantic hero who is ‘quite a friend’ to Agnes, but descends into the hysteria of laughing gas. It perhaps seems less lonely than the other representations of gas-fires; the narrator reprimands Agnes and ‘your friends’ in the final line, suggesting that she is perhaps not alone, but there is also the suggestion that if the gas fire ‘seemed quite a friend’ then perhaps all these others may be inanimate objects as well. The advertisement for ‘The Persian’ gas-fire, whilst promoting an application in the social setting of nurseries, also makes clear its means for independent living, with its ‘side boiling burner’ – ‘a gas fire that will also cook […] make a perfectly good home for one’:
For Tessimond, though, the fire became an obstacle (as indeed love became an obstacle for him) – unfixable without the outside world penetrating his inner-space. It needn’t have been this way. As he wrote about his broken fire, elsewhere in Joubert Mansions where he lived – possibly in the flat directly above Tessimond’s own – the cookery writer Magda Joicey was penning her book Cookery without a Kitchen (1958) instructing single-occupancy dwellers in how to ‘throw a party in the limited space at your command’. The Stuffed Prunes and Cocktail Savoury, had the advantage that you didn’t even need the gas to be connected.