It’s a resonant word for a powerful practice: an important one in my life, at least. The first time I heard it was on a bivouac with some friends above Cheddar Gorge, a couple of years ago. We’d strapped ourselves up, driven from Bristol, and after a plate of bangers we’d yomped out of the pub, up the valley and wound our way onto the tops in the Autumn gloaming. A flat patch of ground under a yew tree – the ancient holder of mystic secrets – presented itself, and we spread out the tarps, built fire, and stared into it. It was about 1am when we settled down.
What came out was the stuff we couldn’t find a way to talk about under conditions of sun- or striplight, in the jacuzzi (one of our crew had on the back of his suburban semi), the workplace or the pub, or not quite to the same depth, with the candour necessary to convey the truth: the problems, despairs, and the disappointments of living, along with the joys, thrills and laughs of life. Illnesses, wishes, shames, dreams, fantasies and fears. Gazing into the flames we told these stories and made sense of stuff. Later we’d fade into silence and awake at dawn, becalmed and reeking of woodsmoke.
Where had this word come from?
“Apparently it’s what cavemen did after coming back from the hunt,” said Acka, as a bottle of scotch went round. “Light a fire, gaze into it, and process the experience. I read it in that book by John Gray.”
I was pleased to hear that Gray – trenchant heretic of the modern project, chum of Will Self and JG Ballard, author of “Straw Dogs”, and one of my favourite writers – had coined the phrase, and I reported as much to Acka, who I could see looking quizzically at me through the dark.
“I mean the other the other John Gray,” Acka said. “The bloke who wrote ‘Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus’.
Living means learning, and wise words can come from anywhere. The next morning, carbonised, aerated, and feeling pleasantly empty, we scrambled back down the Gorge and went our various ways back into the everyday.
We’ve gone firegazing again a few times since, in the Brecon Beacons, the Wye valley, in Devon and Snowdonia. This simple improvised ritual of gathering and talking, with the fire as a sort of pagan/postmodern altarpiece, does us good, and that occasion did something special for me: it reminded me I wasn’t alone in my struggles, and that what I’d been going wasn’t so unique and crucifying that it couldn’t be understood by others.
The truth is that a year or so before that evening I’d had a tough time. I’d been living in Berlin and had had a breakdown, the thing that’s known clinically as a Major Depressive Episode, where one day I found myself on the floor, unable to cope, swamped by dread and despair, and drowning in a private whirlpool of suicidal ideation. I was scraped up from a pavement near the Fernsehturm and manhandled into a psychiatric unit, an event which began a long, slow and circuitous wander towards the distant, nebulous plateau of “better” (“changed” is probably a better word this ongoing state of recovery, but yes, “better” also works in case you or someone you know is going through the mill and they fear they’ve reached it’s the end. It’s possible. Recovery can happen. It does happen, with time, love and patience).
Firegazing helped, and still does. The talking cure works in the consultation room as well as outside of it, in everyday life. Only, it’s not easy to find the situation and the vernacular to float these common human problems. Firegazing is one such useful technology.
Something else has helped me a lot too: making and talking, and making something that’s about talking about these things. In the last 18 months or so I’ve made a publication about my experiences, as a way to understand them by writing, painting and photographing them, and also a means of saying, Here’s a way we can talk about these things. It’s called “Torchlight: A Publication About Asking for Help”, which I had to do, and it’s real and printed now after a year of patient work by my friend Enver Hadzijaj, an artist and designer who came to pick me up that day in Berlin three years ago, one Sunday in hell. Torchlight talks about this stuff in candid terms: depression and anxiety, breakdown and recovery, drinking and dreaming, talking and walking.
Recently I took some copies of Torchlight back to Berlin to give out to the friends who helped me through this episode, saying thank you and inviting them to a couple of Firegazing meetings, one in Paul Snowden’s punk-rock design studio, another in the beautiful reading room of the art organisation Independent Collectors. I explained this story, publication and its ideas, and then listened as those gathered began sharing their own thoughts and feelings about these problems. There may have been no actual fire, but the situation was lit.
Firegazing and Torchlight share a symbolic code as well as a semantic one: I’m no pyromaniac, but I do know that moments round a fire, either real or symbolic, can thaw the chill that stops us talking about this stuff.