Tadpole Bob and the Dangers of Soot!

Taking a break from the self-imposed drudgery and none too pleasant clinging smells of painting the bedroom, I slipped up to the allotment on a wet but warm recent morning. My mother had had her open fire chimney swept and, having requested it, the sweep had bagged up the soot and left it for me. For the allotment. I can remember the time, back as a child, when my grandfather was planting chitted seedling potatoes, the larger ones he’d slice with a pocket knife – making sure there was a growing chit in each fraction, and dip the cut flesh in a tobacco tin of soot. And, every year, every single potato would sprout. Clearly there was something magical about this black stuff. I have since learned that, at the very least, once it has shed the high acidity that would literally “burn” plants, soot is a wonderful slug deterrent.

I also took the kitchen compost bucket; with potato peelings, the cardboard tube inners of toilet rolls, tea bags and six apple cores. These would be added to the growing compost heap. The soot, in a tough black plastic bag left to lose some of its acidity, sitting by the side of the shed.

Full of good intentions, I wasn’t going to be gone long. Get some fresh air, leave said items and get back to the inevitable clearing away and washing of brushes, trays and rollers. How little I enjoy decorating: this being my least favourite part.

The site is looking good. The border dispute is now entering what must be its fourth year. And, admittedly more winter digging needs doing and there are a few  more annual weeds in evidence … but all in all …

Heading back along the path I spot Tadpole Bob’s car pulling in. It’s been a while since we have spoken and he always has something interesting to say. Heading, at something resembling breakneck pace, towards the path from the opposite direction comes Stokey. He’s parked in Bob’s space and wants either to apologise, move his car – or, preferably – both. He’s moving fast … but not fast enough. And there follows some healthy banter about parking charges and prompt payment. Good natured and amusing. We stand together, pass small talk and I am asked what my allotment mission is.

“Just bringing a bag of soot,” I inform them.

Bob, normally smiling of countenance, lets his bearded face fall.

“What’s it in?” he asks. Then, not waiting for a reply goes on:

“You need to be careful! It can be dangerous, can soot. No! Really!”

(My face must have cracked into a smile that I hadn’t noticed at this point. Bob is a clever guy, especially dry sense of humour and I was, frankly, expecting a punch line. I’m not the only one. Stokey is also grinning; we both know Bob’s penchant for getting an amusing dig in.)

But, this time he’s serious, going on:

” It’s what happens when small particles are mixed together. It’s the Tribo-electric effect. Well known…” To him, maybe I’m …

Then it hits. Those sandstorms in films like Mad Max, The Mummy (the more recent ones -as opposed to those with Christopher Lee as the bandaged one) and – oh, what was that film with The Rock in, desert, camels, nubile …

Yes! Yes, yes, yes: The Scorpion King. There’s sinister lightning flickering around in the whirling, threatening clouds of approaching sand. Generated by the fast moving particles rubbing together, swapping – or stealing – electrons. The Tribo-electric effect.

I just never figured it with soot. It’s dangerous in it’s own right. Gets into your skin, blocks up the Dyson filter, invades the spaces you never put dust (soot) sheets. In fact, once when as teenagers my brother and I were sweeping the front room chimney, we were so confident in our abilities we didn’t use dust covers at all. Just a metal bucket in the fire place to catch the soot. Pick it up, take it outside, return and repeat. Unfortunately on this occasion a jackdaw nest was in the chimney and a nestling tumbled down into the grate, became instantly capable of erratic flight and blundered everywhere: settee, piano stool, curtains, mirror, clothes hanging on the back of the door. Disaster!

Stokey has also remembered something.

“Yes!” he says, “When I was driving a wagon on the open cast … dusty work that, up and down The Hole all day. Massive engines, big air filters, stuck outside the bonnet getting clogged up. We used to use the air lines to clean ’em out. Against the rules, but faster to do. On a couple of occasions I got a hit from that. Must have been that Thingy-effect then eh?”

I had, for my sins , forgotten that Bob has worked all his life (so far) as a mechanical and electrical engineer. That he still has all of that knowledge. And is very practical too; people on the allotment, indeed, turn to Bob when they have machinery that needs fixing; a strimmer perhaps. But his favourites are rotavators: the gearing, the gubbins, the carburettor. And that the opencast where Stokey worked was not just down the road (this is Staffordshire and we have had our share of collieries of all manner through the ages) but in Africa.

There may be a tendency, at times, to write “old boys” like Bob and Stokey off. But there is experience and knowledge gained and refined over the years. Every now and then it is brought to the surface and sparkles in the sharing.

But, unable to be serious for lengthy periods of time we slide towards joking about selling tickets in six months time so that people can see me dicing with death and static electricity as I scatter the soot and work it into the soil with a metal handled fork. And whether we could sell the electricity to the grid and make money (er, I did say we weren’t serious didn’t I*)


* This being static electricity it would not, of course,  be easily storable or transferable.







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