It was Carnival Day in Dunmow on Saturday. I know how much effort goes into making a carnival happen, so I thought I’d dust off this old post.
In the early 2000s I was on the Carnival Committee for the village where I then lived. The event had been flagging a bit, and we took it on ourselves to resurrect it. And we decided on a theme. That year’s Carnival was to have a medieval theme. We’d need some theme attractions.
We already had a guy on board who owned and was not embarrassed to be seen in a jester’s motley, complete with bells on his cap. We reckoned a stiltwalker would be a good idea, and I happened to know a plasterer who routinely used stilts when plastering ceilings at an awkward height. Even if he refused to play ball, a video loop of him at work would draw the crowds. A juggler? Loads of people can do that to a greater or lesser extent. A magician? We didn’t have a David Copperfield on tap, thank goodness, so we didn’t have to borrow Concorde, but surely there was someone who could make eggs appear out of people’s ears?
So far so good. But consensus was we needed something spectacular, and we sat around a table looking glum. I decided to inject a bit of levity.
‘I know. A dancing bear! They loved them in the Middle Ages.’
‘OK. A freak show. Two headed piglets, a lamb with five legs, a bearded lady…’
People were getting a bit restive by now.
‘Dog fighting? Badger baiting? I’m just trying to think outside the box, here.’
A series of Looks.
‘I’ve got it! We need a firebreathing act! Every film you ever see set in a medieval market or fair has some bloke in a leather jerkin and tattoos, spitting flame.’
That got their attention.
‘Now it’s easy, ‘I said. ‘All we need is someone stupid enough to do it…’
Too late I sensed the jaws of the trap closing on me.
‘Oh, no you don’t. I’m not falling for that. I won’t do it.’
The Chairman spoke.
‘It was your idea Dunk, and I can’t think of anyone else daft enough to have a go.’
I was caught in a cleft stick, because one of the committee members was a rather nice attractive woman who actually didn’t seem to mind my talking to her. Firebreathing may just be the way to a woman’s heart. It’s a bit of an odd courtship ritual, but it’s more original than roses and champagne.
‘Oh, all right.’
It’s not as easy as you may think to learn how to firebreathe. I rang a load of circus schools, who laughed me out of court. As they so rightly pointed out, if you’re learning the trapeze or highwire, there’s a safety harness and a big net to catch you if you cock up. Cock up firebreathing and you’re on a one-way trip to the morgue. Nobody’s going to insure you against that.
There’s no Ancient and Honourable Guild of Pyroexpirationists either, which disappointed me a bit. You’d think if there’s a Guild for the blokes who ring the Queen’s swans on the Thames every year, there’d be a Guild for firebreathers. You’d be wrong.
Now it just so happened I was discussing this problem with a mate in my local. One of the regulars was a retired full colonel, ex-Paras, chestful of medals on Armistice Day, and he was earwigging. Oh yeah, he was Welsh too, with a really nice way of pronouncing the word ‘Here.’ Came out as ‘Hyur.’ Nice bloke actually.
‘We used to do that at regimental dinners to scare the waiters. Used brandy then, but paraffin works just as well. I’ll bring some down next Sunday, you can have a go.’
Which is how I ended up in a pub garden, with a jamjar of paraffin and a cigarette lighter, sweating pretty fiercely. I mean, how hard could this be? If a highly decorated Colonel in one of the toughest, hardest fighting units in the world could do it, surely I, a pretty damned good account director in the pharma industry could do it?
‘Take a deep breath though your nose, a big sip of paraffin, light the lighter, then breathe out really hard through your mouth, as if you’ve just surfaced in a swimming pool. Don’t spit. You’ll set yourself on fire.’
I took a good swig of paraffin, which tastes just as bad as you imagine.
‘Hmmm, that might be a bit too much.’
Aah, what the hell. I fired up the lighter and breathed at it very hard, creating a fine spray of inflammable liquid, and…
There was an impressive fireball, then a plume of flame that looked like the flare stack on an oil refinery. Great job. Easypeasy. Except I wasn’t concentrating on direction but on not ending up in a specialist burns unit with the pulmonary team struggling alongside to save me from aspiration pneumonitis. The direction idea is an important one.
We managed to damp down the trellis with a couple of well aimed pints of bitter, and it was only mildly scorched. The purple clematis took a couple of years to grow back properly.
With practice I got to the stage where on a clear calm night I could create flame rings, like smoke rings but a lot hotter. Firebreathing is also a very impressive way of lighting the bonfire on Guy Fawkes’ Night. I’d advise against using it to light the living room fire if it’s not drawing properly. It could add a whole new unpleasant dimension to the term ‘living room fire,’ and explaining things to the emergency services might prove problematic.
Fire eating I had to teach myself, and it takes a lot of nerve and a whole lot of cheating, since you have to make sure the flames do not actually enter your mouth, but simply look as if they have. For full effect your burning brand or torch must still be blazing when you take it out. If you must have a go, do the eating before you do the breathing. You do not want a mouthful of inflammable residue if you’re putting a burning stick anywhere near it.
The flaming torches up and down your arms? Piece of cake, just keep them moving really quickly. If you have hairy arms this is not a very pleasant olfactory experience as the hair burns, but it surely does impress the children at a birthday party.
If you doubt the truth of this story, there are some photos in the archives at the Stansted Observer of me scaring the daylights out of a firecrew when we did a publicity photoshoot at the fire station. I did warn them to step back a bit, but oh no, they knew better. They did know better about two milliseconds after the fireball caught a sudden gust of wind and engulfed them. They were pretty quick on their feet for men wearing lots of heavy protective clothing, big boots, and hard hats. The fire engine was unscathed.
Did it work with the female committee member? Mind your own business.