In the permanent exhibition at Waterschei there is a mock-up of a Belgian kitchen in the coal age. This reminded me that, as a youngster, I just – just – experienced the end of the coal age. From my bedroom window I watched the London to Glasgow express rattle past every evening, leaving great plumes of smoke hanging in the air, and later the clink, clink, clink of coal wagons being shunted in the local coal yard would lull me to sleep. Steam engines generated coal smoke with a distinctive scent and just one whiff of that smell today transports me back to those sights and sounds. The coal bunker in the back garden (brick coal bunkers and corrugated iron air raid shelters were ubiquitous features of suburban gardens in the fifties and sixties) and the tall, tapered coal scuttle in the front room were both always dirtily full. My brother and I had sword fights with the poker and the shovel that stood ready and waiting beside the fire place. I remember my father’s fire building rituals when guests were coming and a fire was to be lit in the front room (otherwise, we lived in the kitchen in the winter and hot water bottles were de rigeur at bedtime). He used rings of crumpled up newspaper as fire lighters and placed an opened sheet of newspaper over the fireplace to help the fire draw. The coal man with his coal lorry, loaded down with neatly stacked coal sacks in oily hessian, did daily rounds (occasionally we would see a horse-drawn coal cart). He had a sheet of leather over his shoulder and would effortlessly shift sacks onto his shoulder and carry them to his customer’s houses. On rare occasions we would see the sweep, who was a great disappointment because he was not in the slightest bit dirty and wielded his brushes behind a cloth draped over the fireplace in such a way that we never saw even a speck of soot. Once, a chimney caught fire in our street (doubtless because the neighbours had been saving on sweep bills and the accumulated soot in the chimney had caught fire) and a fire engine came, its bell ringing, much to our excitement. Coal smuts – small particles of soft soot that floated on the air – were a menace to our regulation white primary school shirts and the bane of my mother’s life. And I remember a thick fog heavy with coal smoke one evening as we walked with my father to the cinema. He called it a ‘pea souper’. It can’t have been proper smog – that was over by the sixties – but, together with such phenomena as the Kodak factory morning hooter, it gave the young me a sense of living in an industrial, and hence industrious, city. Coal has long since completely disappeared from our lives, and with it a whole culture of coal. But as the serried rows of chimneys and chimney pots on our roof tops still attest, coal was once not so long ago a constant presence in our daily lives.