Many moons ago, when we first moved to the Corrèze with baby daughter and retired cat, a kind man with a funny piping voice and a name like Peugeot caught me struggling with a winter’s worth of wood one fine autumnal day. He watched with wry amusement as I tried to steady the volatile logs before chipping in with the Gallic equivalent of, ‘No, you don’t want to do it like that; you want to do it like this’. He taught me how to log-pile, yodelehehee!
This was the same kindly soul who lent me, a virtual stranger, his white van in order to drive to upstate Ussel and collect a flue for our chimney. I brought it back home, coiled up on the van’s roof rack like some monstrous metallic python. Monsieur Peugeot had a hell of a job to install that unwieldy flue. It was an easier matter to teach a callow city dweller from a foreign land the basics of creating a solid free-standing log pile. At the time, I little appreciated just how fundamental a lesson that was. I have piled logs now for 16 winters, but can’t describe myself as an expert. Shamefully I confess it: I am but a functional log-piler.
One of my most consistent distractions, as I’ve driven around the high ways and byways of the Lot and the Corrèze, is the spotting of immaculate log-piles. Some people look out for open-top sports cars, some for manicured gardens, and I look out for perfect stacks of firewood. So far, the finest example I have ever seen is but a ten-minute drive from here, en route for my friends the Thompsons. The logs have been piled from floor to roof under an agricultural shelter near the house. They look as if they have been mathematically matched and then interlocked with such finesse that the effect is that of some colossal patisserie. The logs that have been removed for burning have created an impression of slices in the outsized confection.
I look upon that person’s (or persons’) toil and marvel. However, I don’t beat myself up for my failure to emulate it back home. Because I think of the sheer time involved in splicing, stacking and adjusting those logs and it fills me with horror. ‘Pray, father, what did you do with your life?’ ‘Well, child, I created the neatest log-pile in the Lot, and perhaps the whole of France.’ I see. It’s a variation on the theme of ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’.
If anything, though, my log-piles have got worse since moving to the Lot. In the Corrèze, Debs and I used to create serried ranks of stacked logs in the shelter of our barn. So every time you passed through those big ruined doors to fetch the day’s quota of firewood, every time you walked between the shoulder-high ranks of hewn oak, you got the impression that you were inspecting the troops. At ease. Yes, very smart…
What’s spoilt the effect here is the absence of roof. I have created some rather inelegant substitutes. The most effective have been the sheets of tin I bought when I was obsessing about termites during the construction of this house. I realised that they weren’t fit for purpose, but they have since served us well as covers for drying logs. They don’t look too good, though.
A couple of winters ago, after seeing something in a ‘prospectus’ for one of those travelling lorries that park up in the local square and open their doors to queues of home handymen, I built myself a series of labour-saving shelters with vertical wooden supports secured to bases made of old pallets. The supports meant that I no longer had to worry about constructing the log-pillars on either side that stop the pile from slip-sliding away. Crafty, I’m sure you’d agree. The black plastic covers, however, stapled to and stretched between the tops of the supports are never taught enough to stop the rainwater collecting in puddles. And as soon as the plastic tears, the collected water leaks down onto the logs. They look even worse than the tin covers.
As it happened, last Wednesday – after depositing The Daughter at school – I drove to the new-ish Brico Depot on the edge of Brive. France being France, the arrival of the pile-‘em-high builder’s merchant hasn’t triggered a price war with its competitors. The likes of Obry and Mr. Bricolage will just carry on regardless until one or both goes bust. As I have no particular loyalty to any one of them, I go now to the cheaper depot, particularly as it lays on coffee and biscuits for customers between 7 and 10pm. It’s not the best, but it’s a nice gesture all the same.
There on the forecourt were some wooden cache-poubelles (or dustbin hiders) seemingly reduced from about €70 to a mere five. Shurely shome mishtake. They had to mean reduced by €5, didn’t they? So I asked the nearest available member of staff. ‘Yes, cinq euros. You can pay more if you want.’ Aha! A man with a sense of humour, I thought. I could do business with his ilk. Big enough to hide something like one of those communal bins, and complete with gate and roof, I figured they would be an ideal means of creating an orderly and labour-saving log-pile.
Reader, I bought four. And I have to say that the humorous assistant was helpfulness itself. Not fooled for one minute by my accent, he even threw in a few phrases of English for good measure. I got the feeling that dealing with a slightly curious anglais had made his day. He certainly made mine. You get so used to the indifference, even the occasional outright rudeness, of shop assistants in big stores like these that it warms your cockles to come across someone who clearly wants genuinely to assist.