Conservation of energy is a phrase that rolls off the tongue so easily in these days of rising fuel prices, talk of Global Warming and Peak Oil, and campaigns to use energy-saving lightbulbs. But the phrase means different things to different people.
I was thinking of this a few months back during the depths of winter after visiting some friends on a chilly evening when one of the kids came in leaving the back door yawning.
“Oi! Were you born in a tent?” boomed Mum who should’ve known the answer to the question in any case, since she was obviously there. Nevertheless, the rhetorical question worked its magic and the wild night was shut out in a trice.
The very question itself transported me back a few centuries to my early teenage years, when we’d be rugged up in front of the fire watching tele on a Sunday night – usually one of those excellent historical programmes that Anglia Television used to produce when quality of content was more important to broadcasters than the number of adverts they could cram around the edges of the programme.
Celtic armies would be battling it out on the plains, kings and queens would be plotting, and the commentator would be guiding us through the historical event we were watching in glorious black and white. Between programmes it would be time to bolt for the kitchen and make a brew (watching tele is thirsty work) and then we’d have to dash for the dunny in the ad breaks.
As a teenager, conservation of energy, were my middle names. What energy needed conserving? Mine, of course. I didn’t have the energy to reach for that light switch as I left a room and anyway, I’d be back in an hour or two, and lifting a hand to the switch was a tiresome task. As the evening wore on, the house would take on the appearance of a fairy grotto, light streaming from all corners that I’d been lurking in.
Doors were worse. Such big heavy things. Handy to have closed when you’re in the room, but the caring-sharing side of my personality would kick in when I left the toasty sitting room for the chill of the hallway. I’m unsure whether I wanted the rest of the family to share the chill of the rest of the house with me or whether it was just too much effort to shut the door behind me as I left.
I too would get the, “Were you born in a tent? Shut the b!##dy door!” routine. This would throw the conservation of energy thing into disarray, as I’d have to retrace my steps using extra energy to do just that.
From my father’s point of view, it was very much a conservation of energy thing. Precious heat was pouring through the gaping doorway at the rate of Gigajoules per second. That meant that more wood would have to be chopped to feed the gaping maw of the fireplace. And if it was a tea trip that I was on, the sitting room would’ve been transported to Antarctica before I managed to get back.
The kitchen in that wonderful old pile that we lived in at the time was further from the sitting room than the planet Pluto. The mid-evening refreshment routine involved brewing a pot of tea and hauling a tray of cups, saucers, sugarbowl, milk jug and assorted other paraphernalia from the kitchen back to the other side of the planet. Usually one of us was sent as the advance guard to get the jug boiling and assemble the flotsam and jetsam, and another member of the brood would be sent as a sort of rescue posse to help haul everything back to base.
Not surprisingly, there were scuffles and snuffles. “I did it last time,” was a common wail. And terrible illnesses and injuries such as instant deafness, broken wrists, and headaches were a common complaint. My parents must’ve wondered if they’d given birth to a tribe of weaklings. One sibling, who had a degree in energy conservation had a favourite saying for such moments, “I have to do everything around here!”
But one thing always won through. Somewhere in the kitchen there usually lurked a treat that’d been baked in amongst a mountain of food over the weekend, and we only needed reminding of that to get us moving. We would’ve been watching like hawks as the mixture went into cake or loaf tins and went into the oven. Then the performance could begin. Persistent banging of the back door, right near the kitchen stove, had been a succesful ploy in the previous house for turning baking into puddings. Perhaps it was the jarring of the mixture, or the oven door flapped about allowing precious heat to escape. Whatever the cause, one expert practitioner could sometimes cause the baking to go wrong and the cake or loaf not to rise properly. Yippee! That meant it would have to be disguised with whipped cream and served for pudding. Yum.
But in the house across from The Smelly River, the beleagured oven actually managed to do its job properly, and the cake, loaf or slice would be turned out onto racks and put on the highest bench near the servery, well out of the reach of pecking kids. It would then be stored for suppers later in the week. Rarely did it get to the cake tins unscathed. Whining, claiming near death due to starvation, tantrums or good old-fashioned wheedling usually meant that we’d be able to assist with the all-important stage of Quality Control to make sure something was good enough for the tins.
So, despite the instant illnesses and the urge to conserve energy that would come upon us in the warm sitting room, us kids could hear things singing to us from the distant kitchen when reminded. Squares of ginger crunch. Slices of buttered fruit loaf (my favourite – I can smell it now as I type this, drool.) Slabs of ginger loaf, buttered, of course. Marshmallow fingers. Tangy ginger gems. Fly cemetery, known as fruit fingers in more polite society. Lavvy biscuit – made from rolled oats, so you can guess how it got its name!
If there was a special programme or event on TV we’d be a bit more organised, and plan the snacks in advance. Home roasted peanuts (skins on) were a treat. Gingernuts baked in gem trays to soften them, pressed down to form hollows that could be filled with whipped cream when they had cooled. And the treat of treats, mousetraps!
Mousetraps are the very cornerstone of civilisation, and it still mystifies me today that those excellent old documentaries never mentioned the armies marching to victory with bellies full of mousetraps. Slices of thin bread would be buttered and, if there was time, the crusty edge would be sliced off before the bread was cut into fingers. Each finger would receive a slice of cheese and a sliver of bacon would be perched atop. The mousetraps were then laid out on oven trays and grilled until golden and bubbling.
Whilst earthquakes, plagues of locusts and the end of the world couldn’t lever us away from tele in a warm sitting room, news that a tray of mousetraps was in the oven could. We’d erupt from the sitting room like rats from a burning woodpile and cluster about in front of the old Frigidaire stove in the kitchen watching them cook. Someone would find the plate of sawn-offs and we’d gnaw on the crusty off-cuts while we waited like a gaggle of starving gannets.
That tiny little oven window attracted more attention than Ena Sharples, Minnie Caldwell and Martha Longhurst clacking their gums in The Snug down’t Rovers, I can tell you. A scrum would form as the mousetraps were ready, and we’d be hopping about the kitchen tossing a scalding mousetrap from hand to hand before the oven tray had made a safe landing on the bench. I don’t think I ever saw a lonely left-over mousetrap in that house.
At such times, the teenage adherence to the law of conservation of energy, also known as inertia, went out the window. But it didn’t last long. Once we’d bowled the mousetraps, we’d bolt back to the toasty sitting room and become as inert as housecats.
Troubling clouds were gathering on the horizon, and it was time to be as inconspicuous as possible. There were dishes to be done – usually lots of them. “I washed last night!” “I dried last night!” “I have to do everything around here!” A new battle begins. New illnesses and ailments need to be dreamt up. Energy must be conserved.