Some words stay with you for a long time after you first hear them. I'm not talking about words so profound that they form a cornerstone of your philosophy; or words so cutting you can almost see your beating heart held before your eyes; or words so exultant that they could make you grow another ten feet. I'm talking about words that seem to hang together magically; words whose syllables seem to align cosmically, effortlessly; words that are somehow so evocative they are burned into your memory. They don't even have to be complete sentences. It's just the way that they sound.

The words Bengal fire are seared into my memory.

Bengal Fire was the name of a horse. He was big and brown, and one of the first horses I remember after we left Germany and returned to the UK. He won the Royal Lodge Stakes in 1986, and was sent off to the USA in 1987 to run in the Kentucky Derby. His name conjured exotic visions in my seven year old imagination. He was an immense ball of flame, a swirling mist of hot colour. He was every shade of burning, from deep finger-staining mulberry to the palest winter sunlight yellow. He blazed across the horizon, glistening and glittering, his heat so intense he left no marks as he passed. Bengal Fire was the perfect firestorm of my mind's eye.

Bengal Fire is the name of an azalea. Azaleas are a part of the rhododendron family, so you might find it called a rhododendron. They grow tall, somewhere around two metres. They are relatively hardy plants, and will withstand wintering in all but the coldest areas of the UK. If you live in the northern hemisphere, you can expect them to flower in May. Deep, fiery orange flowers, of course.

Bengal fire is the name of a firework. Mostly, they are known as Bengal lights, though. Made using combinations of potassium nitrate and copper compounds, it was the potassium nitrate that gave them their name. Bengal used to be a major producer of potassium nitrate. It was shipped in monstrous quantities from Bengal to Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: Europe's demand for this ingredient in gunpowder, glassmaking, and dye, was insatiable. It was shipped as ballast, it incurred no freight costs.

A Bengal fire burns steadily with a vivid blue flame; add barium to the mix, and the flame will burn green. But it was the blue flame that was most used, back in the days of high empire, as signals at sea. Not the blinding, furious orange of my imagination, no, but still a flare in the dark.




Signals on the horizon

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