Jason Goodwin: On wardrobes, spontaneous combustion and burning Vladimir Putin

Our columnist takes his life into his own hands by witnessing the ceremonial destruction of Russian premier Vladimir Putin.

If November’s good for anything other than growing moustaches for charity, it’s bonfires: the sharp crackle of bracken and bramble catching fire and the Indian smoke signals rising through the valley as gardeners get rid of damp leaves and cardboard boxes. Cleaning up creates a clubbable sense of common industry and shared purpose and the scent of smoke in the air is as good as a cigar.

Our friends Simon and Alexa opened the season on November 5, with a huge blaze in a clearing in their woods. They laid on mulled cider and sausages, with a Guy played by Vladimir Putin, apparently as much a threat to Parliament as Catesby and his hapless co-conspirators four centuries ago. We arrived in time to watch his boots smoulder, and shuddered.

Given a clear day, bonfires can turn a dismal chore into a hotly contested treat. We’ve been meaning to clear out the pole barn and tidy up the drive for ages, so fire became a glittering lure, making the most of having all the boys home for the weekend and a high, blue sky.

We started with old news-papers and pea sticks. Leaves are entry level, as are cardboard boxes, which shoot out of the back door crisp and straight-sided and soon become floppy, soggy avatars of themselves.

‘Isn’t this the thing we picked up from the burnt-out house where that old lady spontaneously combusted?’

Recommended videos for you

Twigs, brushwood and sawn wood require triage between the bonfire and stacking for fires in the grate. The bonfire usually wins, because it’s there, ravenous and exciting and the desire to feed it is irresistible.

Hedge trimmings, brittle bean poles, mouldy rags and chipboard shapes that have done their duty in the hen house keep it going. Sparks fly up. No one likes brown furniture more than I do, but the barn was never a good place to store Victorian chests of drawers: the veneers have buckled and peeled away, the varnish has clouded and stiffened and, in the damp, the swollen wood no longer moves.

Heaving the lower part of a kitchen chair, minus a fourth leg, onto the smoking pile, Walter says: ‘This could be my best job. I would like to be a charcoal burner for a living.’

He takes the splitting axe and, in seven whacks, reduces the chest of drawers to boards and struts. Harry films it and later runs it in reverse, so that Walter seems to be deftly assembling a chest of drawers with a heavy stick. They wonder if it could go viral on YouTube.

‘The sky is dark, the ash glows and flames like Vesuvius’

Walter holds up a glass decanter-stopper. ‘Isn’t this the thing we picked up from the burnt-out house where that old lady spontaneously combusted?’

I nod: it was that or the pendant from a crystal chandelier. A long time ago, when Anna was small.

It’s all very jolly, smashing things up. We set the mahogany boards aside, for another use, and splinter the deal for house fires, but there’s enough on the carcase to toss on the fire and a terrible glued-together 1950s wardrobe that slides into its constituent parts with a single push. Young people setting up home want the pared-down Ikea look, not beading and brown veneer. Onto the fire with it all.

For the Fireball, we’ve prepared a Viking funeral. The long- abandoned racing dinghy sits in a tunnel of brambles, all ply and black rot. Fireball is a misnomer: the hull comes apart in our hands like damp biscuit as we toss it in handfuls to the flames, recalling summers past, summers of sanding and painting.

Now, the sky is dark, the ash glows and flames like Vesuvius and we stand around the fire, astonished by the heat and the luxurious waste of it.

‘If the house burned down,’ Anna says, thoughtfully, ‘how did they know it was spontaneous combustion?’