Outside, the rain flooded along the gutters in front of the Victorian row houses on Belmont Road. My father snored gently on those wet fall and winter Sunday afternoons, and every so often my mother, asleep and dreaming beside him on the settee, would let out what seemed like surprised little grunts. The only other sound was the sudden shifting of the coals in the fireplace.
Wide awake, my brother and I sat together on the hearth rug, the fire hot on our faces, in the safe little enclosure formed by our parents on their couch and the big, empty armchairs on either side of the fireplace. The coals glowed the colors of the rainbow, and if you looked closely you could peer into fiery caverns that would collapse from time to time, creating new fantasy scenes.
That comfortable picture in 1937, two years before Britain was at war, was the first of a whole lifetime of memories of fire, some as benign and emotionally warm as this one, while others had grimmer, even terrifying associations.
For the next dozen or so years we had annual bonfires on the fifth of November, when Britons -- for whom, of course, there’s no celebration of the fourth of July-- celebrate the burning at the stake of Guy Fawkes. Fawkes was a traitor who, in 1606, tried to blow up the Parliament building in London. Guy Fawkes Night is a subtle combination of Independence Day and Halloween. A week or two before it, children dress up at night as masked and caped conspirators, and scurry from door to door, seeking not trick-or-treat candy but ‘a penny for the Guy’ to buy fireworks. Somehow the grisly horror of burning a man alive has been lost over four hundred years. With a few invited friends, we’d gather in the first winter cold at the bottom of our garden, stuffing kerosene-soaked rags under a pile of dry tree limbs, wooden furniture from the town dump, and fruit and vegetable crates begged from the local green-grocer. Our parents watched solicitously from the shadows, coming forward to supervise the lighting of bottle rockets, Roman candles and Catherine wheels while we chattered around the flames licking around the masked, straw-filled effigy.
My first memory of a fire as an adult was in Finnish Lapland in the winter of 1951, heading south toward the end of an Arctic sledding adventure. The temperature hung around 50 degrees below zero as we followed the frozen river Teno. Gliding along the icy river late in the evening, and with the moon high, we halted at a deserted cabin on the riverbank. This, and others like it, were provided for travelers to take shelter. The snow had been blown up to the eaves of the cabin on the eastern side, but on the leeward side it was relatively easy to clear it from the doorway.
We tethered our reindeer and heaved open the door. Inside was a room measuring maybe twenty-five by thirty feet. At the far end was a fireplace of roughly hewn boulders, in front of which stood a rough pine trestle table. The walls, floor and ceiling were of dark bare wood, and there were six iron bedsteads, with neither mattresses nor blankets. Matti, our Lapp guide, led us outside and, with his sleeve, swept the snow and ice from a pile of pine logs, which we carried inside. Then in matter of seconds, with a little razor-sharp axe, and with the assured skill of an expert chef chopping shallots, Matti rapidly chipped out a fan of wafer-like slivers of bone dry resinous wood that, miraculously, caught fire as though they were doused in oil. In a few minutes the huge stone grate was aflame, making the whole cabin flicker and glow.
A year or two later, in Northern Ireland in the spring of 1952, two of my Army comrades and I had attached ourselves at weekends to the Royal Air Force mountain rescue team, which scrambled over the Mountains of Morne that really do, as the song says, ‘sweep down to the sea.’ The team was on standby to help with any emergency on the range, from an air crash to the rescue of lost or injured climbers and scramblers. The mission entailed day and night patrols, hauling stretchers over the rocky, heathery gullies, and down the steep faces. We never had to do any of these things with real accident victims, but the constant routine of rehearsal was real and exciting enough. And in this setting there is another memory of fire. Near the foothills of Slieve Donard, the highest of these hills, which rises up to nearly 3,000 feet from the sea near Newcastle, County Down, lay a ruined mansion. By now the once-proud house, commandeered by the Army as part of a training area in World War II and never reoccupied, was nothing more than a shell, and pock-marks in the brickwork showed that the place had been fired on with mortars and machine guns from time to time. Its roof had caved in, and the windows had long gone. If you looked carefully in its overgrown gardens you could see the last vestiges of expensive and exotic shrubs, and wildly overgrown pear and apple trees that some painstaking gardener had trained and trimmed on the garden’s sun-facing brick walls.
It was in this house, on its brick-strewn, earthen floors, that we set-up our base. At night, after meals of canned food -- maybe beef stew, peaches and strong tea brewed with evaporated milk and sugar -- we’d build a fire from the fallen roof beams, and sit around it, exhausted but content, smoking and drinking Irish stout, our faces flushed by the intense heat of the fire, and maybe by the brew. Beyond us, the red sandstone house glowed in the firelight, its hollow window spaces black and empty. And above it all, on moonlit nights the mountains towered through a constellation of sparks. Fifty years on, I not only see it; I can also smell the burning wood, almost like incense.
Only a few years later, in 1955, we were in Egypt on another spring night. Four of us, young officers on an off-duty desert adventure, were driving in jeeps from our camp in the Nile Delta, half way between Port Said in the north and Port Suez in the south. Our destination was a tiny fishing spot in the Red Sea called Al Qusayr, two hundred miles short of the Tropic of Cancer. The going had been good, on tarred roads as far as Suez. Then, for maybe seventy miles, oil men from the rapidly growing refineries around the port had made arrow-straight roads of flat, oiled sand that seemed to head nowhere. Now, half a century on, a narrow road hugs the coastline south, but then we made the journey a little way inland over virgin desert for more than two hundred miles.
The Eastern Desert is not at all like the romantic dunes in Lawrence of Arabia. While there are such areas, much of the territory is flat and stony. Scrubby bushes grow near the wadis, dry riverbeds down which sweeping torrents flow in the brief rainy season. Pye-dogs and tiny deer roam the area at night, and yellow, slothful lizards as big as dogs bask in the sunshine by day. On the evening before we reached our destination we camped on a beach of silver sand. The sea was shallow and warm and, with a shrimping net, we hauled fat shrimps out of the sea, to supplement our dull, tasteless K-rations.
Afterward, tired but well-fed, we drove around in the dusk around our camp site, scavenging for the bleached woody stems of camel bracken and other growth in the wadis. It took a while, but fairly soon the jeeps were piled with fuel for a fire. We felt good. Here we were, comrades together in the very center of the world. Across the sea, fifty miles east, was Saudi Arabia. Down the beach lay the beginning of the Nubian Desert and, beyond it, the Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, where the Red Sea merges into the Indian Ocean. The fire crackled and spat, and sparks flew up into a moonless sky.
We were sitting on the sand, well into our stock of warm beer, and singing -- ‘All the world am sad and dreary, everywhere I go . . .’
I gazed up at the flying sparks. What in heaven’s name was that up there above us, and had the others seen it? Lit by the fire, far, far up in the sky, it seemed, was a bearded, hooded face. Could this be God himself, Mohammed, or Moses? We’d stopped singing, rendered dumb. He was still there but, looking down, his head moved a fraction.
My neighbor broke the spell. “My God, It’s a bloody Arab!”
And so it was. For days we’d seen no one, but here was some nomad, crossing the desert alone on a camel, who’d seen the fire and ridden over to investigate. Now, still mounted, he towered above us while we sat, staring up at his impassive face.
None of us spoke. Another comrade, John Gregory, raised his hand in friendly recognition, and his response to this mystical visitation was more like that of someone meeting a stranger in his London club.
“How do you do?” John said. Without a word the man reined in his camel and rode away into the darkness.
A year after that desert crossing in Egypt, in the summer of 1955, my unit was ordered to Cyprus, then a British colony, to deal with recent outbreaks of terrorism. We set up a tented base near Nicosia, the island’s capital, and were pitched into two very different kinds of action. Sometimes we faced riots in the city’s warren of narrow, twisting streets, using batons, tear gas and water-canon. At others, with more lethal weapons, we’d patrol the Troodos Mountains, the island’s rugged backbone. Here, EOKA -- a well-armed unit led by the Greek national partisans who’d once helped the Allies drive the Germans and Italians out of Greece -- was now hiding, and harassing the British troops.
That year, in the foothills of Troodos, there was an incident in which a dozen young soldiers were burned alive. Though I never witnessed a single moment of it, I was a member of the three-man court of inquiry that followed the blaze, and re-lived it shortly afterward through the eyes of the men who escaped it alive.
The enemy wasn’t EOKA, but fire. It happened on a warm October afternoon. On a narrow single-track road through a sheer rocky gully, a convoy of the Gordon Highlanders regiment was making its way with trucks loaded with ammunition and other stores, led by an armored scout-car. The sides of the road were piled high with tinder-dry undergrowth and limbs that had fallen from the pine trees that overhung the pass. The road grew rougher and more uneven, and the scout car overturned, trapping the driver on the rocks half in and half out of the vehicle, which caught fire in seconds.
Ferret scout cars, like miniature tanks, but with wheels instead of tracks, had gas tanks that held at least forty gallons, and more in jerry cans strapped to their sides. The Ferret exploded in a ball of flame, killing the injured driver and spreading quickly to the truck behind it. Jammed nose to tail, the convoy could move neither forward nor backward, and in minutes several trucks behind the Ferret were aflame. Later, expert evidence showed that there was a gusty wind that day, and a draught of air blew up the gully, fanning the flames. Although some troops tried in vain to use the vehicles’ puny fire extinguishers, many of their comrades were suffocated in the inferno.
As the junior member of the court of inquiry, I sat with a major and a colonel at a trestle table in an echoing room at the Chief-of-Staff’s headquarters in Nicosia. We’d already visited the charred site in the Troodos foothills with technical experts, and now eye-witnesses gave evidence that was scribbled down laboriously by a clerk who had no shorthand. Young Scots, mostly boy-faced privates and junior non-coms, all of them draftees, told how their brother soldiers had huddled together, their uniforms in flames, terrified and beyond help, unable to scale the perpendicular rock wall of the pass. In the court, several of the young survivors hesitated and wept while giving their evidence, as did a gray-haired veteran staff-sergeant, whose voice cracked with emotion and remorse as he told how he tried to wrap his burning boys with blankets in a futile attempt to smother the flames.
Then came the experts; fire officers and engineers giving their opinions on how and why the vehicles caught fire; military lawyers outlining the regulations about correct distances between vehicles, even a pulmonary specialist from a nearby military hospital. In stark contrast with the soldiers, all of these spoke in a casual, matter-of-fact way, as though they were witnesses in some everyday county court case back in England, dealing with some petty larceny, or a minor driving infringement.
We deliberated late into the second night. There was some discussion about whether anyone should be blamed for the closeness of the vehicles, but in the end we ruled the case a misadventure.
There was another fire in Cyprus. A year later, I fell for a girl called Anita, whose photograph I first saw as the island’s ‘Girl of the Week’ in the Times of Cyprus. I managed to trace her and to meet her, and in a short time we were very close. She was Armenian, an alluring, dark-eyed, Mediterranean beauty, two years younger than I, and so much more exotic than the girls I’d known at home in England. When I could get away on occasional weekends, we’d meet at Greta’s Garden, a faded but still elegant hotel in a villa with apple green shutters, on the edge of the city, surrounded by an orchard of orange, lemon and fig trees, where peacocks strutted by day and cried eerily at night. But the affair, though sweet, was short-lived, for I was soon to leave the service and return to Britain. I missed her terribly after we parted on my last day, and believed I’d never see her again.
Back in London I transferred to the British Army Reserve, and spent the next eighteen months as a trainee in a public relations firm. By then I was engaged to a British girl. But, because my wealthy father-in-law forbade the marriage until I was more able to support his daughter, took a much better paid position back in Cyprus, as the press officer for the Emergency Police Force. I returned to the island without my fiancée for the year before the wedding; the mores of the day prohibited our being together there. Anyway, there was still too much violence for her to be safe, though Cyprus was by then moving toward the granting of independence. It’s not surprising that, alone, I often thought of Anita, but I was determined to keep her in the past and, though tempted, never sought her out.
But one night I had a call from police headquarters. There was a huge blaze in Nicosia. A gang of Greek Cypriot hotheads had set fire to a Turkish-owned timber yard and, since it was part of my new job to be at every incident to deal with the press, I was there in minutes.
The yard was in a maze of narrow streets in the old walled city, and before I reached the site I could hear the roar of the fire, and see the sparks flying above the rooftops. Turning a corner into a cul-de-sac, I stared into a wall of flame that licked up into the night sky. Unable to reach the fire from that point, the firemen had backed their vehicles out, driven round and attacked it from another flank. Presently, the flames on the edge of the burning yard died down a little, enabling me to see more clearly to the other side of the blaze. There were four fire engines, their ladders fully extended, and crews towered over the inferno with their hoses. A crowd had gathered, and my heart leapt when I saw that, among them, in the floodlights and the brilliance of the fire itself, was Anita. A tall dark, young man stood beside her, his arm round her shoulders. She was looking out over the flames, her face composed but somehow distant, as though her thoughts were lost in the fire. At that moment, all my memories of her flooded back, and it was all I could do to keep from calling out to her.
But I was silent, and never saw her again.
And then there was fire in India, every bit as deadly as the blaze that raced up that mountainside in Cyprus.
Fourteen years ago, my wife and I were in Varanasi, an Indian city so ancient that it was already two thousand five hundred years old when Buddha preached there in 530 BC. Despite that connection with Buddhism, Varanasi, on the banks of the sacred river Ganges, is predominantly Hindu, and believers come here from all over India. For the healthy, it’s the center of kasha, or divine light, where people come to pray, to cleanse and purify themselves, and begin life anew. The city’s inhabitants can experience this every day, and take part in a daily drama on the ghats, huge stone staircases, more than seventy of which sweep down to the water for the length of the city.
On the ghats, loin-clothed men and sari-clad women come down for the ritual washing of their bodies, heedless of the impertinent eyes of foreign tourists. Others wash their clothes, kneading them on the rocks, beside other locals and visitors who stand, partly immersed in the holy Ganges, their lips moving in silent prayer.
Known as ‘The City of Light,’ Varanasi has another, darker aspect for which it might more aptly be called ‘The City of Life and Death.’ Nearly two thousand bodies burn every week on the ghats, in full view of passers-by. Hindus – there are eight hundred million of them in India and Nepal -- believe that coming to Varanasi to die brings instant release from the torment of everlasting reincarnation, and forgiveness of their sins. This is granted even to those unfortunates who, if their relatives cannot afford enough logs to finish the cremation, are heaved, partly-burned into the river.
We’d been told that the best time to experience the ritual panoply of Varanasi is at sunrise. The phone in our hotel room shrilled at 5 a.m., and we showered quickly, pulled on yesterday’s clothes, gulped down a cup of coffee and walked with our guide through still dark streets, already milling with people. Everyone seemed to be going in the same direction through the narrow, twisting alleys, heading for the Ganges. We reached the ghats a little before dawn. Already there were scores of rowboats on the river where thousands of candles, each buoyed up by a lotus leaf, bobbed and flickered around them on the water. With other travelers, we boarded a boat and paid the oarsman a few rupees for candles, and nursed their flames while he rowed us out some fifty yards from the riverbank. There, after we’d floated our little lotus lanterns off on the water, the boatman heaved on his oars and we glided upstream.
To one side, across the mile-wide river, the sun rose misty-gold, more like a full moon over the purple horizon, casting its swelling light on the crumbling sandstone buildings on the waterside: palaces; pavilions and temples. We passed the bathers, who seemed to say little to each other. Some were unashamedly naked, and more intent with the ritual pouring of the water over their bodies than taking a morning bath. At another ghat, the washing of clothes seemed to be a much more social affair, where women chatted and laughed together, helping each other fold their still wet garments, stacking piles of bed sheets, and what seemed to be tablecloths. Could these, we wondered, be for our own hotel?
Close by, we drifted past a ‘burning’ ghat. Hindus are cremated before sunset on the day they die, so blazing pyres are rarely seen early. At the back of the site stood a smoke-blackened temple, one of a thousand temples in this city of a more than a million souls. Alongside the building was a massive stack of logs that dwarfed the low caste workers -- untouchables – demolishing several smoldering black mounds. From each of these they dragged out the bones that even the six hundred fifty pounds of timber used for each body can never destroy: the skull, hip bones and femurs. Traditionally, the skulls are cracked open, to allow the spirit to leave, after which the remains and ash are raked into the river where, not a hundred yards downstream, people drink the water, wash themselves and their clothes, and even brush their teeth.
Earlier that week, farther north and over the border in Khatmandu, we’d seen a funeral party, strangely cheerful, chanting, threading its way through the crowd with the yellow-shrouded corpse shoulder high, tossing coins to children along the route to the cremation site. Both here in Nepal, and also in Varanasi, people who are near death, and who come from afar, lodge nearby. Sometimes the sick and aged wait for months or even years to die, but all are aflame within an hour or two of death. By the Bagmati river in Khatmandu, we watched the flames lap round shrouded bodies on several elevated platforms that extend over the riverbank, making it easier to sweep the remains into the water. The air was redolent of wood smoke, and the acrid odor of burning flesh.
Finally, year after year, there was my own slow-burning ceremonial of autumn fires in my garden at home in England where, under a towering tree, the smoke curled over a pile of crisp fallen oak and chestnut leaves, rose prunings, tomato and bean plants, and dead summer flowers.
In those days, about thirty years ago, a fragrant mist hung for days over our Surrey house and garden, heralding the frosts and the coming of winter. To me this was the purging of my little patch, a pleasing preparation for the cold, dormant months, ready for a new beginning in the spring; a perennial round of ashes to ashes.
Nowadays, as here in America, such fires are taboo and, through I accept the reason why, that was a ritual whose passing I regret.
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