What Is it with a fire? Even more, what is it with an open fire outdoors? And why are we men drawn to it like moths to the flame?
The male of the species can always be identified by his possession of a matchbox, whether he is being Napoleonic in his aristocratic assumption of command at the barbeque, or in his careful husbandry of a coal fire or a wood-burning stove, or in his boy-scout approach to the camp-fire.
When we used to go camping as students, we would consider it very poor form to camp on camp-sites and equally poor form to take a stove. Each evening, we would search for dead wood, grade and break it into sizes, so we could easily put our hands on small pieces for tinder, then larger pieces once the fire got going.
The fire would be built properly over a core of paper. We took an obsessive care over building a fire. We were determined that our fires would not need to be lit twice, so we took great care.
Success or failure in the lighting of a fire lies in meticulous preparation. It is better to be cold for a few minutes while you build it properly, than to be cold for half an hour while you start all over again, trying to breathe life into a fire that is dying.
When I met Ray Mears, I learned to be even more independent. I scraped the dust off the back of birch bark and lit it with a spark, fanning it to life with my breath. But I was losing my sight by then, and my camping days were over.
And I had become soft with central heating and double glazing. Cushions and pillows, too.
So . . . fast-forward to 2015. Today, in fact.
There is some wood to get rid of in the garden. “Let’s burn it”, my wife said. All the testosterone that had managed to cling to a precarious life in my body surged to my brain, and I was unable to stop myself grading the wood, and making a little pile of tinder.
What do you mean, I can’t see? No more of such defeatism. No more siren voices, telling me to take it to the tip. No, I am a woodsman, friend of Ray Mears. This could not, would not, be beyond me.
The fire was built, the tinder lit. I prayed to whoever is the God of Firelighters, that it would take first time, that my skill of old would not desert me.
It didn’t, and it burned, and I was happy in a way that I don’t feel very often these days. The crackle of the fire, the smell of the wood-smoke, the sensation of being really hot on the front and cold on the back, the dance that you do to avoid the smoke in your eyes and lungs, as it follows you wherever you sit.
It doesn’t take much to make me feel happy. Times like this bring back countless memories, and a sense of completeness and belonging that only a camp fire can give.