Playing with fire: Open wide. Lyndsay Russell discovers the best way to eat fire and blow the flames out again without smelling of barbecued bacon

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The Independent Culture
As a kid, I watched fire-eaters in the circus and since then, I've always wanted to learn how to do it. It's the ultimate party trick,' smiled 30-year-old Annie. Her dream materialised through SPICE, a nationwide adventure club which offers a monthly Special Programme of Initiative, Challenge and Excitement.

Fire-eating has proved to be one of their most popular events, and so far, 2,000 members have participated in the pounds 20 one-day workshop. Following in their footsteps, 25 novices turned up at Carshalton Athletic Club on a wet Sunday morning, extremely unsure as to what they'd let themselves in for.

'To build confidence, we're going to start with some reflex games,' announced Daft Bob Scallywag, a 34-year-old professional fire-eater / medieval court jester. Quickly, the atmosphere changed to that of a school party. Then came the Trust Test.

Eyes shut, everyone selected a fire-eating 'buddy', then took it in turns to be blindfolded and led around outside. It sounded insane, but was a clever idea. The coaxing voice of each partner created a bond as they led their blinded 'buddy' up ramps, over barrels, onto steps - a trust sorely needed, if you were going to rely on this stranger to help you eat fire and (if necessary) douse out the flames. One man suggested his partner should do a trust test of lighting her cigarette - blindfolded. He was pushing it. 'Do you smoke?' she retorted. 'Cause you will by this afternoon.'

'The fabric at the end of the firebrand is non-flammable,' explained Daft Bob. 'It's the stuff they use to line space shuttles. Remember, it's only the vapour from the fuel I've dipped it in that's actually burning. And it takes a few seconds before it can scorch flesh.' Everyone practised the precision routine of placing an unlit firebrand in their gaping mouths. Told to imagine a football was balancing on the curve of their arm, most hit their noses. Half an hour later, the movement became more fluid. Then came the trick: saying the word 'HOW' as the brand enters the mouth. Once inside the cavity, the carbon dioxide exhaled extinguishes the flame. But you mustn't close the lips completely, or you'll touch the metal.

'We'll spot the failures by the smell of barbecued bacon,' encouraged Bob. Hands shook as the flames whipped around in the heavy wind. 'It seemed a good idea when I filled in the form,' quaked Becky Moverly, 22. 'Quick, take a picture' cried another. 'This is me with a face . . . This is me without.' Slowly, encouraged by the painless success of the others, every single person finally managed the feat.

Next came flame-blowing. More spectacular, less dangerous. In a line-up, everyone practised blowing raspberries with mouthfuls of water. Then came the moment the group had been dreading. Time to drink half a pint of milk, and then replace the water in the mouth with a foul fuel that made a bottle of meths taste like Chateau Rothschild. As everyone learnt the art of blowing a fine spray and running backwards, the night sky filled with dramatic plumes of flame.

Daft Bob ended the event with a strict safety lecture and a heavy sales flog of his firebrands. 'Office party tomorrow, I can't wait,' grinned a new fire-eater proudly clutching his brands. 'Oh forget that,' replied his friend. 'I'm off to burn next door's cat.'

London SPICE (081-781 1847); National Office (061-872 2213)

(Photograph omitted)