The big bang

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark on playing with fire

Who doesn't like a bright fire on a dark, chilly night? Some of us, though, like fires more than others. Martin, for instance.

Martin's always liked flames - their blazing colour, their leaping roar. Since he was tiny, he always liked seeing his mum light the gas. It gave him a special kind of warm feeling. And he's been fascinated by his dad's friends who smoke - the paraphernalia of matches, lighter, flicking dead ash off the glowing coal. Now he's eight, he's taken to sneaking off and experimenting. Just small campfires.

Oh, and the time he tried to light the candle under the duvet. They had to call the fire brigade. The smoke filled the upstairs corridor and the firemen warned him that smoke can kill. But - no smoke without a fire, no clanging red fire engine without the alarm call, no anything without Martin and his matches. See what can happen? All that, from just one little spark.

There's something about a dark chilly evening that seems to call for a box of matches. Even the most organised of adults feels it, the thrill of a bonfire in the darkness. But for children, fires are magic, and setting fires is making magic, boys' magic. More than 90 per cent of firesetters are boys.

So it was that one dark, chilly evening Martin met Terry down by the allotments. Terry likes fires, too, but Terry likes them in a different way. A psychoanalyst would call Martin an "oral-stage firesetter"; fire-prevention workers would term him "curiosity driven". Terry would fall into the category of "phallic firesetter", driven by "inner disturbance". Which is to say, Martin's parents would not be keen on Martin meeting Terry by the allotments. Terry doesn't do well in school, he doesn't really have friends, his mum drinks, his dad is nowhere to be seen, he has bruises which coincide with his mum's visitors. And he's funny-looking, never meets your eye, sort of inward-looking with an odd smile.

That evening, Martin discovered that Terry is a high-achiever in one subject - how to make fires. He knows how to start a spark with a burning-glass, how to make it go "whoosh!" with petrol or paraffin, how to encourage it with little bits of fuel, how to fan it with wind and suck it in through open doors. Like if you hide in a shed and there is a fire outside, when you open the door, in comes the fire. Wasn't there a movie about that - Backdraft?

Well, it was just a campfire at first, then a shed-fire, then it pretty much took over the allotments when the autumn leaves on the trees caught. Martin probably didn't know that some of the allotment owners stored gas canisters in the shed, the kind that go "bang" in intense heat, but we think Terry did. Terry needed a bit of magical control in his life, perhaps, and Martin was just finding out how things work.

Fifty per cent of fires are started by children under 15. Eighty-five per cent of victims of fires set by children are the firesetters themselves.

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