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This evening I headed out to Mudchute Farm on the Isle of Dogs to walk on burning embers. What did you do with your evening?
I wasn't actually really in the mood to walk on fire tonight. I'm not sure I would ever be, but I was feeling a bit down and reluctant to be there. Obviously I was doing this for the show, but knew at the back of my mind that it might not end up being one of my actual tasks. It was also slightly weird to be going to do something like this on my own, with no-one I knew even comnig to watch me (which is kind of how I wanted it- I hadn't really asked anyone). But inevitably I felt a bit nervous about doing something like this with a load of people I don't know. Plus I was worried that I might burn my feet or fall face first into the fire and be hideously disfigured. It would make a good talking point for the show, but might affect my day-to-day life somewhat.
Yet I think this reluctance is all part of it. This is pretty much how I felt in the car-park on Sunday whilst I was waiting to paracdhute jump. A voice in your head is telling you that what you're doing is a waste of time, mainly because a part of you is scared.
The event was for a charity called "The Winged Fellowship Trust" which provides holidays for disabled and visually impaired people. I was supposed to get sponsorship money for the event, but felt it might be stretching things to ask everyone to give me more money after the Marathon, so I just paid the minimum amount you had to raise myself. The people running the event were cheerful and friendly and they'd laid on fire-eaters and drummers to entertain us. I was still feeling a bit detached though and kept myself to myself as I waited for the training to begin. This wasn't as scary a notion as jumping out of a plane and I had slept well last night, but at least with a parachute jump you knew what you were doing and how it all worked. I had no idea what it was that made it possible for a person to walk across a pile of burning wood. Was there some kind of hypnotism or stupid spiritual element to it? Or was it just a physical technique? And what if I fucked it up.
I mean I don't have any strong feelings about my feet and I don't have much time for them normally to be honest. But I would miss them if they got burnt away to bloody stumps.
I suppose if I had been here with a friend we might have been buoying each other up, but I was considering making a run for it. With my shoes on. And not over fire.
One of the main things that kept me there was wanting to know how all this was possible.
I suspected it might be difficult. There was a two hour induction session for us to go through. Two hours? I kind of thought that we'd just turn up, be told it was possible to walk across burning embers and why and then we'd just do it. If it took two hours to train us this implied some kind of special skill. And if there was a special skill then there was every chance I could fuck it up. And this time I didn't have a small bald man tied to my back... which thinking about it is probably a good thing, he would have slowed me down. But once I was out on the fire then I was on my own. Suddenly it seemed a hell of a lot more dangerous than jumping out of a plane.
We were all taken to a smelly barn to be told the secrets of fire-walking. Our inductor was a slightly fearsome looking, large and chunky bald man (another baldy, perhaps there is some link between losing your hair and seeking thrills - perhaps this is why with my lustrous locks I have previously had no desire to do so. It's a theory. Some kind of Samson effect. You've lost your hair and your strength, so you have to try and demonstrate your manliness in other ways. Or maybe it's just a coincidence) called Cliff. He was happy to scare us a little and play upon our fears to begin with and early on I very nearly got up and said,"Actually, sorry, I've decided to go home." But he was really only playing with us.
He was very keen to let us know that he wasn't going to be all spiritual about this, or get us reciting mantras or being touchie-feelie (he described his own technique as "punchie-kickie"). I was very pleased about this because had the exercise relied on a leap of religious faith then I know I would have been doing my impression of the melting witch from "Wizard of Oz" by the end of the evening.
Early on Cliff told us why fire-walking works and I was relieved to hear that it was to do with physics and not faith. Not as relieved as my feet were though: they have always been my most logical appendanges. Even thought the fire is burning at over 1200 degrees Fahrenheit you don't get burned by it because wood and coal do not conduct heat very efficiently, you are constantly moving and you are protected by the moisture in your own skin. Just like when I was told that the parachute would open automatically if no-one pulled the cord I now felt much safer.
The rest of the course was devoted to helping us to overcome the actual fear of stepping on to burning hot embers. Cliff concentrated on showing us how our mental attitude could affect our performance and also how we are capable of tricking our body into behaving in a certain way by merely acting like that's how we feel.
Rather like Martin Cross he also used the time to bond these 34 dispirate people (and all ages and physical types seemed to be represented) into a team. He said he'd never had anyone fail to do a fire-walk and he'd never had anyone injured (or fall over - he claimed that however clumsy you might be in real life, people are only clumsy when they aren't concentrating. And walking over fire concentrates the mind).
As I had come along to the evening feeling quite low I found all this stuff quite interesting. It's clear from most of the extraordinary things I have done this year that the main thing that stops people doing them is themselves. If I can learn to row and run a Marathon and jump out of a plane then pretty much anyone can. One exercise ably demonstrated that if we feel miserable and worthless then that's how we will be.
It was quite amazing to see a room full of people who were largely feeling the same as me at the beginning transform into a united group, none of whom was going to drop out or run away.
After lots of shouting we went out into the field to see the fire. It was about the width of a pavement and fifteen to twenty feet long. At this point it was burning quite fiercely. We were made to feel the heat. Despite all that we had heard it did seem illogical that we were going to be able to walk across this. Admittedly there would only be embers and no flames in five minutes time, but evenso.
So it was quite incredible to see people willingly parade across this fiery pathway, but Cliff had done a great job in persuading us to believe that we could. I was about two thirds of the way down the line, so having seen so many people go before me I was even more confident that all would be OK. I strode purposefully across and had been so convinced of my own invulnerability that I was actually a little bit surprised that the fire was hot and that my toes were stinging a little.
When we went back to the barn the reticent band of withdrawn British people had become excited and chatty. It's amazing how a shared experience brings people together. I was very glad I'd taken part. Though I wondered if I could have done it without the talk. I felt ready to go for it as soon as I knew about the Physics and the fact that no-one had ever fallen over.
On the train on the way home I bumped into some of the guys who'd been with me and their friends. They revealed that one of their friends had managed to sneak on to the back of the queue at the walk without having done the training. He had been fine. It would have been quite cool if his skipping the class had resulted in him turning into a human torch the minute he touched the coals. But the evening wasn't about walking on fire being magic, it was about having the confidence to believe something that seemed illogical and be able to overcome your fears.
I'm glad I didn't run away at the start. Not as exhilirating as jumping out of a plane, but in a way more satisfying.
In other news, the radio pilot I did in February "That Was Then, This Is Now" is to be made into a series which will start recording in October and also the evil PDG have agreed to give me a pilot episode for "Warming Up". At the moment they only want a 15 minute version, but I am sure I can persuade them that half an hour is better.