Bonfires and bureaucratic hot potatoes

20:47, Nov 25 2012

Spontaneity is fine, as long as it's planned well in advance and fully certified.

I was camping in Golden Bay recently when a confluence of full moon, low tide and fine weather suggested a fire on the beach. This is a permitted activity, I discovered. Not permitted in the sense of "allowed", but in requiring a permit. (It's all in the inflection.)

Until a few years ago, you rang the duty fire officer. In the Bay, that was the legendary George Duff, who died last August after more than 40 years of around-the-clock service, all voluntary, to the local brigade.

Permits are now issued by the Rural Fire Authority in Richmond, and only during office hours, Monday to Friday. Apply for a weekend permit and it's entirely possible the rain clouds will come in, making your permitted time span useless. I guess you could apply for every night (it costs nothing), but this is unlikely to be permissible.

In brief, spontaneous combustion is off limits.

Spuds baking in tinfoil in the embers; a singalong with fellow campers; snuggling up to your holiday "fling" in the warmth of the flames - all probably not permitted by Environmental Health, APRA and Paula Bennett respectively.


In truth, the carefree beach bonfire was lost long ago. We have obtained a rare Elizabethan transcript from the south of England in 1588 - recorded for training purposes - which begins with a gentleman banging on the counter of the Plymouth Fire Authority.

"Look sharp, man. I'm Sir Francis Drake. The Spanish Armada has been sighted off the coast. Get those bonfires lit."

"Whoa there, Prancer. You've left this a bit late, haven't you? It's five minutes to five by my sundial."

"I care not. Light the blessed fires. We must inform London."

"All in good time, squire. I take it you have a permit?"

"Permit? No."

"I see. Have you had a bonfire previously?"

"The Armada, man - 150 ships; 30,000 heathen troops breathing paella down our necks. They're planning to overthrow Queen Elizabeth and establish Catholicism throughout the realm."

"Of course they are. I hear all the stories in this job, Sir Francis. Have you had a bonfire before?"

"Um, yes, I think . . . My father would light them when I was a whippersnapper in Kent."

"Ah, now we're getting somewhere. Can you remember your permit number?"


"I see. That's difficult. We might have to permit each bonfire."

"Oh, for pity's sake - we're talking 40 stacks."

"I'll get the monk lettering those forms first thing in the morning. He's sundialled off his shift for today."

"By tomorrow morning, you could be speaking Spanish."

"I had a week's holiday in Benidorm last year, as it happens, Sir Francis. Hola. I don't appreciate being patronised by a toff like you."

"I'm sorry. Hola. Can we just do one form, please? Get it started?"

"Not in the manual, squire. But listen, I'm a smoker and I appreciate you bringing tobacco back from the Americas and all, so we'll kick on with a Form D57B, Interim Approval. OK?"

"Thank you."

"Right, when do you want to light these bonfires?"

"Straight away."

"Hmmm, I'll say six to keep the paperwork kosher. Burning till when?"

"Ah, eight?"

"Eight bells. Purpose?"

"For England, man. To save Queen Bess."

"Maintain the historical prerogative of royalty to exploit the underclasses. Tick. Will you be preparing any food on this bonfire? For instance, baked potato - one of your innovations, I believe."

"Not mine. The potato was introduced by the Spanish."

"Ah well, there you go - they're not all bad."

"No food. They're signal fires, stretching to Beachy Head and inland to London."

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that, Sir Francis. OSH would have a screaming fit. Will a licensed pyrotechnician be igniting this blaze?"

"Yes, why not."

"Members of the public kept six leagues back behind childproof barriers?"


"Designated first aid warden, buckets of water on site?"

"Absolutely. Cigarette?"

"Oh, thanks. Tell you what, Sir Francis . . . Frank . . . I'm going to put the wax seal on this permit straight away, you being a gentleman and all. I'll dispatch it to HQ by the first available donkey express rider."

"Too late, man, too late. Look - there's a Spanish galleon beaching now. The soldiers are pouring out."

"They're what? We haven't issued any permits for usurping. Dirty beggars. If there's one thing I can't abide, it's unpermitted mayhem. Leave this to me."

The Spaniards retreated under a barrage of Forms D123A and D217C. Not that you read this in the history books. History is written by the victors, except in this case it was written by those who could write - upper-class mates of Sir Francis who painted him as the hero of the hour.

Seriously, though, I'm in a dilemma about fire. It attracts idiots, as we've seen this Guy Fawkes. Around my way they let off fireworks for 10 nights straight - and the Prat of the Year was exploding them at 1am. On every one of those nights, my dog cowered under the dining table in terror.

So, my heart grieves that the pleasure of a campfire under the stars is hobbled by bureaucracy.

My head knows that idiots must be kept on a short leash.

My hound recommends a choke chain.