My son wanted to go camping this weekend and it sounded like a great idea. I thought about us under a starlit sky, pictured us listening to the distant hoot of an owl amid the hot chirrup of crickets. Imagined our easy silence as we lounged around a jolly campfire, waiting for our delicious beans to start bubbling. Ray Mears would probably waddle past and nod appreciatively at my bushcraft: the pleasing symmetry of my campfire, the tautness of my canvas, the reduced salt and sugar content of my beans, my general oneness with nature.
So I said “Yes, let’s go camping”…….
Let me tell you right now summer camping is a game of two halves: Day and NIGHT.
Let’s start with the days, glorious well-lit hours filled with the simple pleasures of the great outdoors: catching grasshoppers in a wildflower meadow, or making a rope-swing over a chuckling forest stream, or throwing ‘flea darts’ at each other, or climbing rheumatic trees on muddy knees – it’s all good. Bumblebees doodle across vast empty skies and time slows to a warm syrup crawl. As the light starts to fade you notice blackbirds dotted across distant telegraph wires like sheet music.
Even “setting up camp” is fun, as you watch your home for the night take shape. We’d arrived early and picked a secluded spot before going off for the day, I wanted my son to feel safe but still on an adventure so I’d stayed away from the crowds. Unfortunately upon our late return we discovered that the crowds had come to us. In well-equipped droves. Our remote yet idyllic locus, our father-son bonding site, our tiny tent, was now totally surrounded by caravans, marquees and loud music – the circus had arrived. Feral children ran naked between washing lines strung up between caravans, chased by dogs with mad eyes and tongues. Everywhere we looked huge tents nuzzled one another like amorous shire horses, tents with porches, tents with electricity, loud, modular, sci-fi monstrosities. Somewhere nearby I could hear an argument and a toilet flushing.
And there cowering in the middle of all this was our little tent. Our crap little tent: a little red triangle – like a warning sign I’d failed to pay attention to. We picked our way past the cat’s cradle of guy ropes and sat down outside our home for the night. Caravans loomed up either side of us. I hadn’t yet dared look at my son, couldn’t bare to see the inevitable disappointment on his face. A moment passed in silence as I took off my hot dusty boots.
“This is brilliant isn’t it Dad!”
“Oh thank God”
“I mean yes, YES!, this is brilliant! Look at all this company we have! How lucky!”
“We won’t have to be scared now that all these people are here will we Dad?”
I put my hand on his warm head, “No, I suppose we won’t”
A bearded face popped into view “‘Allo have you seen my little James Brown?”
I covered my son’s ears and said “I beg your pardon?”
“Ma doggie, mon petit chiot – James Brown!!”
“You wouldn’t happen to be French by any chance?”
“Je suis FRONCH!! Ow did you know?” he teased, “I think ‘e might be ‘ere because your tent looks a beet like a……..chenil?”
Suddenly my tent looked exactly like a kennel, my son laughed. I didn’t.
“No offense, just a beet small yes?”
“Well there’s just the 2 of us and it’s meant to be 4-man….” I started to explain and then I remembered the wise words of my Grandfather who’d lived by the code “Never explain yourself to a frenchman with a beard. Or any Frenchman. To a man they are cheese eating surrender monkeys”
(NOTE: I think this attitude came from him being shopped to the Germans having been shot down over France in the second world war, but it’s difficult to be certain as he also liked to watch Top Gear)
“….If I see your dog I’ll let you know. His name is James Brown?”
“Oui James Brown”
My son ran off into a field of long shadows, eager to wring out the last drops of fun from the dying day, the sun was a peach melting into the fields around us – soon it would be time for his first night under the stars. I had to make the bed.
Alone again, I gingerly unzipped our tent, half expecting a french dog to leap out and kiss me on both cheeks. I pulled the inflatable mattress out and got to work with the foot pump. A familiar bald head re-emerged from the nearest caravan window, this time with the tiniest cutest dog in the entire world.
“I found eem, in a cupboard hahaha! He was humping a blanket! He is like me this one – ALWAYS HUMPING!”
I smiled politely “Good, good”
“My wife was English you know, we had 4 children together,” he continued “She HATED camping.”
I couldn’t tell if she were dead or divorced so I said “Okay then”
“Although I would never do it in a tent like that,” He held up an emphatic finger “Caravans only!” and with that he disappeared back into his mobile home with his humping dog.
An hour later and we were ready for bed, my son snuggled down into his sleeping bag and, exhausted, was asleep in seconds – the sort of sleep awarded to those that’ve taken as much out of the day as the day has taken out of them. I lay there looking at him for a minute, hoping he’d remember today in the years to come the way I would. He smiled in his sleep and farted. I opened the entrance flap a bit and put my head near it.
I unzipped my sleeping bag and got inside and, for the first 30 seconds, it felt incredibly comfortable, I kidded myself into thinking that I would have a pleasant night’s sleep. Sure, sleeping in a tent is like sleeping in a shell suit, a shell suit that someone had just farted in, but you know, it was OK. It was our own fault that we’d had beans for lunch. And supper. In fact it struck me that beans should never have become a campfire staple. As my son continued to sleep-fart it also struck me that essentially we were sleeping in a highly flammable bag filling up with methane next to an open fire. This not being the most relaxing of thoughts – I decided to get up and douse the fire.
I tried to move my legs and couldn’t. You might not know this but a sleeping bag is basically a straight jacket for legs and, if you’re foolish enough to have kept your arms inside, zipping it up to your neck using the internal zip, it can render you immobile in seconds. I reached up to pull the internal zip down and it caught on the material – I was trapped!
Just take a moment to picture me thrashing around the tent in silence, like an epileptic caterpillar, desperately trying to free myself from quilted bondage. Picture the panic as my trapped arms fail to undo the zip near my neck and I roll off the mattress and facedown onto the cold hard floor. Inch by inch I caterpillar myself facedown out of the tent.
Once outside I take a few deep breaths and roll myself on to my back, the snigger of insects surrounds me, mocks me. I lay there, looking up to the heavens and wondering how I’ve trapped myself in a sleeping bag when I spot “James Brown” – the humping puppy.
He inches closer and waggles his eyebrows.
Surely he wouldn’t?
Defenceless I watch James Brown as he looks at me.
Slowly his tail starts to wag.
Hard to believe that the wagging of a puppy’s tail could be one of the scariest things you’ve ever seen?
Frantically I start pulling at the zip, don’t get me wrong I like puppies, I can play with puppies all day and night but I take exception to having a young dog’s helmet slapped across my face while it tries to fuck my earhole. I’m particular like that. With a wrench I force the zip down and leap out of my bag. James Brown diverts his affections to my empty bedding just as his owner appears.
I must look quite shocked because he asks “Is something wrong?”
I point down to my sleeping bag and the tiny puppy thrusting upon it. It is suddenly a very funny sight.
“Monsieur I hate to inform you,” I say “but that dog is fickle”
“I know!” he replies “He is a sex machine!”