It’s my birthday in May, there’s going to be a party and it’ll follow the same procedure as every year. An intermittent BBQ throughout the afternoon and evening, followed by a bonfire after it gets dark. The buildup is happening; wooden pallets are arriving and being stacked up all along the side of the house. It’s for the bonfire and the men delivering the wood I remember as the lads I introduced to the simple pleasure of watching a fire burn through the night and waiting for the first light of dawn creeping over the horizon.
A lot of people have never actually seen the dawn come up. There is such a thing as the dawn chorus. The birds really do sing to greet it and if you’ve never experienced that, you really should; at least once in your life. You do owe yourself that simple wonder. Why birds do that, I’ve no idea, and from some of the explanations I’ve heard, no one else appears to have either. Quite frankly, some things really don’t have a logical explanation Mr. Spock.
For months, people in the locale have been hoarding their own decent pieces of wood for the bonfire but the good stuff, in the shape of smoke-free pallets, arrives discreetly in the back of battered vans. Every year and for reasons known only to herself, my wife tries in vain to limit the size of the fuel for the bonfire, and knowing that, my pallet pushers always text ahead before a delivery to confirm the coast is clear. My beloved darling and doxy is up against an almost military level of planning by a bunch of committed pyromaniacs and never really stands a chance. If they had to, they’d airdrop them in.
I recall showing those men when they were kids, how to toast marshmallows on the end of long sticks I’d freshly cut and whittled for them. The heat from the bonfire was so intense, they hid behind makeshift cardboard heat shields but still got their mallows done, even at the risk of third degree burns. Great risky fun for a young kid, but of course, we watched them like hawks.
When they were becoming young bucks, I also showed them it was okay to piss on the bonfire at five am and watch the steam rise, though it’s probably not one of my more notable accomplishments. That’s the sort of disgraceful mad bad Dad stuff I’m occasionally prone to. We watch the flames through the night, discuss the shapes and colours we see dancing in them and talk sobering up philosophy and bullshit between cat naps. The guitar of Ry Cooder slides hauntingly across the night, from out of the workshop where an old battered XP computer is working its way through the playlist.
It’s a gathering of the clan but in a wider sense, it’s bigger than immediate family. It’s an opportunity to renew old friendships with people you value but rarely get to see. It’s the young people I saw growing up with our kids who feel at home in our house. Blood relation or not, I have a fond regard for them all. It’s always been an easy open house and they were always great kids you could have a laugh with. They’ve grown up to be fine young men and women. I’m proud and glad to know them and by now, it’s more their thrash than mine. They’re starting to bring their own kids along to it and showing them how to toast a marshmallow in front of a bonfire. They watch them like hawks. The big circles of life.
It’s been running that long, everyone knows the routines and the rituals. I’ll sit back and take pleasure watching them enjoying themselves. It runs itself by now, or should I say, I let them run it. They’re making their own new legends of the BBQ and it makes me happy. I’m an older lion now, content to lay across a warm rock in the sun and watch the young creatures of the savanna at play. It’s all ahead of them and I slightly envy them. They’ll of course have their own struggles with life but I think they’ll be okay.
A year’s worth of ash in the burning pit I dry stone-walled so long ago, has been dug out for a fresh burn, the lawn has had a short back and sides and I’m putting together this year’s playlist. This time around, I think I’ll go heavy on Tom Waits and Joe Cocker, with a bit of Radiohead and the usual standbys. I load in a mix of familiar popular stuff which will resonate with an age demographic that runs from single digits into the late seventies. They’re all up for a laugh and a bit of fun.
The numbers vary from year to year. They’re mainly relations, friends or neighbours, who can leave the car at home for once and walk to the thrash with their family, carrying bags of their favourite booze and some dishes for the community table. More than a few tend to rely on the muscle memory in their legs to get them home at the end of the night. A few people drive to it and either leave sometime in the evening or stay over, finding a bed, couch, chair or if all else fails, a piece of floor to crash on. Some are supposed to be leaving at the end of night but decide to stay over. I think the record stands at twenty-eight sleep over guests. That time, I couldn’t get into the upstairs bathroom because the floor of it was covered by three exhausted and slightly smoke blackened rugrats in sleeping bags.
The informal rule we have about when the bonfire gets lit, is that it has to be dark enough to see a star. A bonfire in daytime is truly a waste of a good carbon footprint. If it’s a cold or rainy day, we relent and light it early. As the day slowly turns to evening, what I call the fire people start checking out the sky for a star – they just can’t wait. The burning pit is round with a crescent-shaped wall, which is built up high at the back to throw out the heat. A horseshoe shape.
It radiates the heat out through the open front. A teepee, carefully constructed from a smashed up pallet has been built, with a mixture of kindling, plastic bags and newspaper inside it. It was all done well in advance and in daylight. When it comes to their pleasures, the fire people, like all addicts, leave nothing to chance. I keep a careful eye on them. The maniacs would use napalm given half the chance …
Having spent years teaching my kids how to barbecue food properly, as opposed to just burning the outside of it, I’ve now relinquished barbecuing duties to them. They, like so many of their friends, like to cook and in general most people tend to bring along large quantities of homemade things like pasta salads, spicy chicken fillets, tender pork cuts, tiny marinated minted lamb chops (totally bloody delicious btw), shish kebabs, burgers and selected desserts. The burgers with Brie inside them are good, but what’ve come to be called the weird burgers take some beating, and the Serb who makes them is more than a little coy about the exact recipe. I’m pretty sure he adds in some pork to the beef but beyond that, I think it’d take waterboarding to get his secret recipe out of him.
So many people bring along their own homemade versions of burgers, that we’re always planning in intricate double-blind detail how to have a cook off, but every year the whole damn lot gets eaten before any contest could ever take place. Food comes straight off the grill and onto the plate of one of the gang crowding the grill and hustling the cook for grub. As far as the cook is concerned, he’s fending off a massed shark attack and I can’t blame him. It’s understandable of course; being at a barbecue with a beer in one hand and no burger in the other would somehow feel so unnatural. One year, I’ll surround the brick BBQ with shotgun-toting US Marshals to do some crowd control, and then we might actually have a contest.
My wife is the sergeant major on the food front. As dishes arrive throughout the afternoon, she manages it all and sees it’s all laid out for people to get at. Nothing will get left to waste. She’s busy but enjoying herself, exchanging banter with her mates and easily multitasking en passant, which means anyone who comes within hearing distance of her gets something to do. Everyone gets a mission but she does it in a light way, so nobody resents it – they want to help out anyway. There’s always a million things to be attended to. How she can keep juggling them all, I’ll never know.
I’ve travelled a lot and have worked in many countries and for no particular reason, started collecting hats as souvenirs. At a party here years ago, someone started handing out the hats (most probably me) and that tradition has now been rolled into any party we have, never mind the BBQ. At some point in the evening, the hats get handed out. Like a lot of silly but fun things, it’s caught on and now we have people turning up to the bash wearing anything from a Homburg to a Kevlar helmet.
It becomes a Mad Hatter’s party with everyone wandering around sporting kepis, fishing hats, baseball peaks, russian fur hats, fezes, Luftwaffe forage caps, Aussie hats, berets, VoPo hats and various cop hats from around the world. People bump into each other and exchange hats until they settle on one they like. Strangely enough, what they eventually stick with usually suits them. There was even a Darth Vader helmet one year. I was seriously impressed by that. It even had a built-in frigging microphone so you could do the voice and the asthmatic breathing. Great stuff. If I ever visit the forest moon of Endor, I’m gonna get myself one of those.
My youngest son has been in amateur rock bands for years, with all the expected hassles, egos, hissy fits and bizarre behaviours associated with that particular area of artistic endeavour; think Spinal Tap meets the Commitments, with the usual amp 11 explosion at the end. That sort of crap is nearly de rigueur by now. This new band finally looks to be the one; four talented, committed and motivated people who want to make music, rather than just have the bragging rights of being in a band.
They’re all holding down fulltime jobs but they’re still squeezing in one or two writing or practise sessions every week and coming up with a decent product. It’s their first public performance. They play five numbers they’ve written and one cover. Leaving aside the expected ragging from their friends, the set gets a good reception from a musically knowledgeable crowd.
The bonfire gets lit using a few trowels of coal from the BBQ, which are carefully placed inside the teepee of wood. Up it goes and pretty soon half of the crowd – the fire people – drag their garden chairs towards it and form a semicircle, settling in and getting good position around the fire. They’ll spend the evening, and some of them the whole night, feeding pallets to the fire, watching them burning, sipping their drinks and talking. They take turns for each other doing booze resupply runs to the kitchen, where cans, bottles and wine boxes are all piled up on every flat surface, including the floor.
Over the years, they’ve learnt to feed it one pallet at a time, rather than in the bad old days when they stacked them five deep, producing a towering inferno of such epic proportions, it could easily have been mistaken by a satellite for what those NORAD guys under Cheyenne mountain call a launch bloom.
A fire for them is a kind of wilderness TV, endlessly looping a seductive and hypnotic program, which only they can see or hear and it whispers seductively to them of primordial times in a deep and mystical way the other half simply can’t understand. It gives rise to vague, primal and vestigial racial memories which cannot be resisted but it provokes nothing more than blank stares of incomprehension from the non-mesmerised at the lotus eaters. It’s another one of those things Mr. Spock would struggle with.
Throughout the day, I do the meeting and greeting of friends as they arrive and introductions of newcomers to people I think they’ll get on with. They may be old-fashioned host duties, but I think those social pleasantries are important, especially when you’re a new face amongst strangers. Somewhere in the late evening, my duties as a host wind down and I wedge myself somewhere into the semicircle in front of the fire. From then on, I won’t be moving. I am, of course, a fire person myself. Who else would be deranged enough to build a stone-walled burning pit in their garden?
I sit there through the night sipping Jamesons and water with the usual suspects, listening to and telling a few stories of my own as we watch the flames dancing and the sparks spiralling upwards into the firmament and winking out. We judge the burn rate of the pallets and make sure we don’t run out before the dawn comes up. Eventually poor doomed Phaëton lashes the horses of his chariot, the dawn creeps over the horizon, and after listening to the chorus, I head for the sack and a few hours sleep.
The next day, people get up at various times but rarely before noon. We wander through the house and about the garden and the outhouses doing the first clear up, collecting bottles, tins and various bits of rubbish, and chatting about things that happened yesterday which we missed. It’s all a bit zombie autopilot mode, comfortable simple displacement activity until the higher brain functions seep back. A few new legends of the BBQ are born. Knowing the individuals concerned as well as I do, some are beyond a doubt true, some less so. Even for my place, they’re a touch too salacious Sodom and Gomorrah but sometimes the people concerned like the undenied legend growing. Liberty Valance – when the legend becomes fact etc etc.
By mid afternoon, a more leisurely BBQ begins and since in my capacity as a host, I don’t have to do any meeting, greeting or saying goodbye and walking people out to their car, I can finally relax. It’s a good way of winding down.
It’s been fun but it does take a year to recover from it. By then, we’ll be looking forward to doing it all over again.
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