Stick the kettle on

On certain weekday evenings, the UK National Grid has a sudden demand for power which is peculiar to this little group of islands.

As one of our top soap operas, Eastenders, draws to a close, the grid takes the strain as 1.75 million kettles are switched on for a post-drama cup of tea.

It is second nature to this nation to punctuate life with tea. Our household runs on a rhythm of kettle on, teabag in, brew, add milk, sip and chat.

Tonight, though, we have not taxed the grid. This evening my husband arrived home early for a bank holiday and fired up his trusty chimenea for hot dogs and a cup of tea.

The tea demands a very specific kettle indeed. Because these days even camping kettles from rugged outdoor huts have insulating material on the handle. And in a chimenea this burns away in no time.

No British kettle could do the trick. But eventually, I found one from half way across the world which was perfect for the job.

It had already done its travelling by the time I espied it, crouching on a shelf in a charity shop. It was blue, covered in shiny enamel, and had the most perfect teapot-form one could wish for: an upright spout which safeguarded every drop as it went to join its teabag, a firm, no-nonsense, thick-waisted rustic middle, a sensibly weighted lid and- essentially – a wide overarching handle which hinged so that the kettle swung back and forth in its thrall.

While it was uncompromisingly utilitarian, it had a beautifully framed poise, like a rotund babushka regarding me with Eastern European sardonic silence from its perch.

I gasped with all the delight of a foolish decadent Western capitalist and forked out for it, second-hand, probably twice as much as it cost when it was new.

It fulfilled its allotted purpose with resigned fatalism, becoming stoically blackened in the smoke from the forest-stocked woodpile. It has never faltered once in its task and tonight, after a year, I washed its exterior to discover the cheap little transfer of a while flower which adorned it before the flames.

When I got it home, all that time ago, I discovered a small piece of paper folded inside, covered in Russian Cyrillic text, which was indecipherable to me. Phil chatted to workmates and came home with a more enlightening update: “They’re everywhere in Russia”, he informed me. “No self-respecting kitchen is without one.”

They swing on their little hinge-handles above the fire or the workspace. And like old women themselves, they weave their way through the folklore of that vast country.

Once upon a time, an old Russian tale goes, a handsome prince married a stunning princess. But they had no time to enjoy together before he was called away urgently.

He gave her some advice perfect for the scheming politics of the Kremlin: stay within your quarters, he said. Avoid the company of wicked people, and do not, under any circumstances, listen to wicked talk.

One might ask, Darling, what have you to hide from me? But one didn’t. One nodded and sent one’s husband on his way.

So, inevitably, along came the fly in the ointment, in the shape of a simple and kindly old woman. The Babushka felt as we might about the Prince’s directive. “Why should you stay shut up when outside the world is glorious?” she questioned. “Step outside and stretch those legs, get some fresh air in your lungs.”

The Princess refused repeatedly; but it was so dark and hot in the palace. After some persuasion she stepped down to the pond, and with a considerable amount of coaxing from the woman she stepped out of her clothes and into the pond.

Whereupon she felt a blow to her back. The woman’s voice changed: “Be a white duck and swim in the water!” she shouted.

And the Princess found that indeed, she was. The witch-for that is what she was – assumed the Princess’s form and charmed the Prince on his return.

The little white duck laid three eggs. Out hatched two sturdy ducklings and a tiny third.

They would wander, though: and one day they went too far, straying into the Prince’s courtyard and the waiting arms of the witch. The enchantress tucked the three of them up in bed.

And then she lit the fire; and sharpened the knife; and hung those distinctive hinged kettles.

Twice she enquired whether they were asleep, but the tiniest duck sang a chilling refrain straight from the Steppes:

We cannot sleep for the thoughts that chill us;
We dare not sleep, for they mean to kill us-
Fires are being kindled,
Kettles are being hung,
Knives are being sharpened!”

Cold and hard, this song they taught Russian children as they dandled them on their knees.

In the end the mother saved the day by singing with a human voice to her beloved, a song which let slip the Witch’s dastardly deeds. The children, though dead, were resurrected in florid style, and the witch was tied to a horse’s tail and dragged through a field. Wherever a limb fell off, something grew.

Sometimes it is the familiar objects, the comforting paraphernalia of a kitchen fireside, that serve up the most cold-blooded stories.

My little blue enamel kettle lowers by the fire, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

33 thoughts on “Stick the kettle on

  1. I love tea and tea kettles, and I love how scary fairy tales are. I’m glad that as a child, I read the stories themselves and didn’t just rely on Disney to show me pretty, singing versions of them.

    And it’s a really pretty kettle.

    1. Fairy stories are rarely pretty, are they, Patti? The Russian ones in particular are harsh beyond words, Baba Yaga and her like. But the tales, like the people, are irrepressibly flamboyant. Like their music: I really do feel a bit of The Firebird coming on…

      1. They do, don’t they? There are other stories about falcons turning out to be princes and swans turning into brothers.I feel a thesis coming on…

  2. Lovely kettle, interesting tale -though gory!

    Which tea do you add to your tea pot in your household? Are you a British Rail Girl, (otherwise known as ‘Builders tea’) or are you a Lapsang Souchong perhaps, or Earl Grey girl?

    (What about Roibus?)

    1. Twinings breakfast usually. I am not an experimenter with tea: I left that to the boys at university, who used to impress the more intellectual girls with their knowledge of obscure blends. Not quite builder’s tea, but a stout brew, and lots of it!


      1. Depends on the moment.

        PG strong, or Twinings Everyday, sometimes Earl grey and Twinings every day mixed, and I especially like Lapsang Souchong occasionally. Then there’s Green tea with Jasmine, made very weak (Dragonfly) which is excellent in a flask (dip the bag for a few seconds and discard…and the tea stays fresh tasting, unlike ordinary tea in a flask) and I also like Roibus. šŸ™‚ (well you did ask)

  3. Ooooo, I am imagining sitting near the chimenea as the fire licks this lovely teakettle and dances ’round about and lively Russian tales fill the air. It is really quite lovely, Kate; the kettle, not the story, which you tell so very well. Of course, the fairy tales of old were not pleasant little stories. They were meant to to caution children and scare them. I love teakettles and teapots and the tempest that brews in them.

    1. The Russian tales were by far the most macabre and nightmarish, Penny, and I am afraid my love of Russia and the extreme draws me straight towards them, I am toying with the idea or recounting about 20 of the old Russian tales for a book: they make the most fearsome telling, but the colour!

      1. I hope you do such a book, Kate. These tales are as much for adults as for children and your telling so wonderful. I’ll be in line for an autographed copy.

    1. Ah, you Miami guys never have to put the barbecue away! This is the country where the scouting movement began, we all wear socks for the majotiry of the year, we have sausages and beef burgers, and we boil water for tea on the fire…

    1. Now I feel better. Someone else is dancing with me over that old woman’s fate. I cheered when I heard the final lines: stark and grim though they are. You and I would have held our own in Stalin’s Russia.

      One can source Russian enamel kettles fairly easily online. But I’ve never seen one shaped like this. I love them alll. Hear Le Creuset do a rather lovely one…

  4. what a fetching kettle, just the right shape, and the flowers are perfect.

    so many old tales are grusome, i expect the nice ones just didn’t carry the same impact and so got forgotten

  5. A beautiful kettle indeed! I’m not usually much of a tea drinker – but I felt the need to put the (ahem, electric) kettle on for a cuppa after reading that frightening story… Aaaaahh! šŸ™‚

    1. Quite, Angela šŸ˜€ If these witches will keep turning princesses into ducks and murdering offspring they must expect consequences. Although I have to say I did write a pro-witch piece a few weeks ago and could be accused of duplicity…

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