Reading Orwell: The Case for the Open Fire

 •  Filed under technology, writing, Historical perspective

The Case for the Open Fire was published in the Evening Standard on December 8, 1945.

The essay shows a conservative attitude that a reader today might perhaps call curmudgeonly.

The text starts gently with a "quality of life" argument; in the fourth paragraph, Orwell writes that while coal fire is inefficient,

[the downsides of open fire are] comparatively unimportant if one thinks in terms of living and not merely of saving trouble.

He continues:

The first great virtue of a coal fire is that, because it only warms one end of the room, it forces people to group in a sociable way ... [image of a family reading/playing/knitting] ... it is a comely pattern, a good background to one's memories, and the survival of the family as an institution may be more dependent on it than we realise.

Later, he mocks inauthentic fire:

The most dismal objects of all are those phoney electric fires which are so constructed as to look like coal fires. Is not the mere fact of imitation an admission that the real thing is superior?

Returning to the argument that saving trouble is no argument to switch to modern heating systems:

The point is that household appliances should be judged not simply by their efficiency but by the pleasure and comfort that one gets out of them.

Eventually, the pessimist's voice gets stronger:

Our civilization is haunted by the notion that the quickest way of doing anything is invariably the best.

... Some people, obsessed by "functionalism," would make every room in the house as bare, clean and labour-saving as a prison cell.

My reading of the essay: it is a warning that new technologies will make children less sociable. We lose something valuable if, out of laziness, we leap at any opportunity to implement labor-saving technology.

It is easy to symphatize with Orwell's general premise, but I dislike the fatalism -- why couldn't families sit together even when there is no open fire in the household?

Photo credit Justin Kern