Read the text carefully and answer the questions that follow it. Use your own words throughout as far as possible.

I went fire walking the other day. This is not a joke. I stood in front of a 12-foot bed of red-hot charcoal and walked the length in my bare feet which, at the end, tingled slightly. As you might imagine.

The call to apparent self-immolation came from Michael Hutchinson, who’s the British representative of the Sceptical Inquirer, the American magazine which uses investigation and science to counter paranormal claims such as telepathy, spoon-bending, spiritualism and allied claptrap1. Recently the sceptics (they prefer the US spelling) have been getting agitated about fraudulent seminars where people are told that their minds will be given mastery over their bodies—for a large fee, of course. The climax of each session is a fire walk. Naturally, the people who do it are astounded and tend to believe that they performed a miracle, for which $350 seems to remarkably cheap2. So the Wessex Sceptics decided they would prove that there’s nothing miraculous about it.

Fire walking is possible for several reasons; it depends partly on the heat capacity of the burning material, partly on its thermal conductivity, the speed at which it passes heat into anything that touches it. Think of an oven heated to, say, 225 centigrade. You can put your hand in quite easily. You can even touch the roast meat without suffering more than a momentary twinge. But if your finger brushes the metal rack—which is at exactly the same temperature—you’re in agony for hours. In the same way, anyone who tried fire walking across aluminium would quickly find they had no feet. But wood has a very low thermal conductivity. By the time the burning charcoal realises your foot is there, it isn’t any more (though sappy wood, like pine, is horribly dangerous, since it can stick to your foot). Fire walkers in places like Fiji prefer glowing pumice, which looks terrific but has such low thermal conductivity that you could perform the carioca5 on it. Well, almost5.

The fire was ready. It was too hot to put your hand within a few inches, and a steak6 would have needed 30 seconds each side at most. First came Robin Allen. He looked worried. There was a certain amount of what would be regular, fire walkers’ ‘guy’ talk7, if anyone fire walked regularly. ‘Will somebody tell me again why we’re doing this thing?’ he asked. Then he took a deep breath, walked briskly across, slipped into the tray of water at the far end, and fell flat on his backside. Luckily the tray skidded so that he didn’t land in the coals. Next came the others who’d done it9 before. They reported that it felt warm, but no worse than hot sand on a beach. Then the amateurs, led by Michael, who was splendid: calm, no fuss at all.

Suddenly I realised it was my turn. This was a problem. I applied philosophy to it. Either it was as easy as it looked, or else the others had sprayed asbestos on their feet and the whole event was a cruel joke at my expense. Occam’s razor (which means in effect that the simplest explanation is probably true) caused me to reject the latter possibility. Therefore there was no reason why I should not go. Except for stark, utter terror. We spend a lifetime being conditioned to avoid contact with fire. All the scientific logic in the world, even the evidence of your eyes, can’t remove the basic imprint. And that fire was hot.

In the end, I went for the most banal of reasons. They’d opened another six-pack at the other end, and were drinking to their success. Fear had made my mouth dry. I needed that beer. If it meant strolling barefoot across a four-yard inferno, so be it13. Yes, it prickled slightly, and I was glad it wasn’t 24 foot long. I was also glad to have watched the others’ gait: toes up out of the fire, otherwise flat-footed so that the pressure is soft and even. I think I took only four, perhaps five steps. Then the joy of the cold soggy blanket waiting at the end. And the beer, the best I’ve ever tasted.

(adapted from an article by Simon Hoggart, The Observer)


1 Give another expression for ‘allied claptrap’.

2 What is the motive of the seminar organisers, and why should $350 seem ‘remarkably cheap’?

3 What does the example of the oven demonstrate?

4 Explain the difference between charcoal and pine wood from the point of view of a fire walker.

5 What do you think the ‘carioca’ is, and what point is the writer making when he says ‘Well, almost’?

6 What is the purpose of the reference to ‘a steak’?

7 Explain what the text says about ‘regular, fire walkers’ ‘guy’ talk’.

8 What went wrong during the first fire walker’s crossing?

9 What was ‘it’ that the others had done before?

10 How did the writer decide it was logical that he would not get burnt?

11 Why was he so frightened?

12 Why did he finally walk across the coals?

13 Explain the phrase ‘so be it’.

14 What advantage did the writer have over the other firewalkers?

15 In a paragraph of 70–90 words, state the reasons why the sceptics went firewalking and explain why it is not as dangerous as it might seem.

Sample Answers

Premium Content

Sign in to access this content.