I was six years old when my pyjama jacket caught fire.
My mum was, what can accurately be described as ‘in between marriages’, and we were living in Blackpool with my grandparents at the time. Grandma was cooking porridge for my breakfast on the gas cooker and she had just left the kitchen to say goodbye to mum and granddad as they left for work. The porridge was simmering and bubbling away on top of the cooker when something shiny at the back of the stove-top caught my eye. I pulled a stool over and climbed onto it and reached over to find out what it was. And that’s when my pyjama jacket caught fire.
This was before the introduction of flame-retardant material and the fire soon took hold and I started to scream. Grandma was there in an instant, ripping my pyjama jacket from my body. She threw it on the linoleum floor of the kitchen and began stamping out the flames with her fluffy slippers.
When the fire was out, leaving a scorch mark on the linoleum, she took hold of me and held me close, ruffling my hair at the same time. “You have to be careful, Stephen,” she whispered in my ear, “fire is very dangerous. God knows what would have happened if I hadn’t heard you.”
Then she clipped me round the ear. “So, don’t do anything as stupid as that again,” she snapped.
I was taught two valuable lessons on the day my pyjama jacket caught fire. One was that fire was something that should be treated with respect and not be trifled with and the other was that I shouldn’t mess with my Grandma. The incident also left me with an (understandable) fear of burning to death, and I never did find out what the shiny thing was at the back of the stove-top.
I was, therefore, somewhat concerned when the fireman went on strike on 14th November 1977 and it was announced by the government that the armed forces were going to take their place. I was stationed at RAF Stafford at the time and for a while I thought I was going to get away with being involved. As much as I sympathised with them and their cause, I didn’t really see the logic or the morality of sending in troops, who were on far less pay than the firemen, to do the firemen’s jobs who were on strike for more pay. Also I didn’t fancy the idea of tackling something that I was morbidly afraid of. But then, just about everyone in the section where I worked were told that we had been selected from a cast of thousands to report to the fire section in between Christmas and New Year of 1977 where we would receive comprehensive fire training before being sent out on a big adventure, from which some of us might not return. It was the start of the winter of discontent in the UK, where not just the firemen, but everyone – dustmen, dock workers, miners, car workers, grave-diggers – all seemed to be going on strike. Well, everyone except for the armed forces, who were not allowed to take industrial action.
Our ‘comprehensive’ training, it turned out, consisted of a fifteen minute demonstration on how to hold onto a pressurised fire hose without it snaking loose and smashing all our teeth out, after which we were loaded onto buses and sent to our various locations. My comrades and I were informed that we were being sent to Stretford, which we discovered on our arrival there was a fiercely militant area in Manchester, whose inhabitants lined the streets outside the TA hall where we were billeted and hurled stones at us whenever we were called out to fires. An armed guard had to be mounted at the entrance to prevent some of the more zealous protestors from gaining entry and slashing the tyres of the Green Goddess fire engines.
The last time I had been in such close proximity to a fire engine was on a freezing February night at RAF Brüggen in West Germany a couple of years earlier where, as part of what was known as the Emergency Field Force (EFF), I was tasked to guard two fire engines that had somehow collided with each other on the airfield. This was an unprecedented occurrence as the airfield was enormous, covering a vast area that stretched further than the eye could see, and it struck me as rather odd that two large red vehicles should have crashed into each other in such a massive expanse of empty space – unless, of course, the concentration of the drivers of each vehicle had been momentarily distracted by something out of the ordinary (a UFO perhaps?) while they were playing chicken. I was ordered to patrol around the wrecked fire engines and prevent anyone from looting them and I was to remain there until I was either relieved or the recovery services came and towed them away. In order to carry out this task I was given a torch – presumably to blind any would-be looters with its beam, before throwing my cold-weather jacket over them and then clubbing them into unconsciousness. I was out there for four hours and, disappointingly, no looters emerged from the darkness of the airfield. Although it was a pointless, thankless duty and I was cold and miserable, it was infinitely better than what the other members of the EFF were experiencing at the time – choking half to death whilst shovelling tons of urea (crystallised cow piss) into vehicles that would be required to grit the roads of RAF Brüggen in the early hours of the morning.
In the section where I worked at RAF Stafford everyone had a nickname – there was Chudsy, Hagsy, Mabsy, Lockers, Walks-Far, Evers, Ski and so on. Nicknames were either derivatives of surnames or were awarded for something they had done that the section staff found unusual or amusing. SAC Stanton’s nickname was shrouded in mystery. No-one knew why he was called Foxy and he never offered to explain to us the reasoning behind it. Foxy amused himself by terrorising the Chinese restaurants in Stafford when he was drunk. Ordinarily he was a good customer, always polite and cheerful – but every now and again he would go on an almighty bender that generally lasted the entire weekend and which occasionally ended with the police escorting him back to RAF Stafford on a Monday morning. Foxy’s benders were legendary. They would start on a Friday night and he would spend the evening moving from pub to pub, consuming an unspecified amount of beer and spirits that would have killed most people, until it was time to hit the Chinese restaurants. Considering he only drank on the occasions he went on his mammoth benders, we were amazed by the sheer volume of alcohol he was able to consume in a single session, whilst also being capable of holding a conversation, albeit a nonsensical one. But that still didn’t explain why he was called Foxy.
I was known as either Steve or Mitch, neither of which was a nickname in the truest sense of the word and I longed to have one. Despite the lack of a nickname, I worked well within the section, using my sense of humour, as I had done throughout my childhood, to become accepted as part of the team and, in fact, in one of my annual assessment reports it stated that ‘Mitchell keeps the lads happy with his eccentric sense of humour’. I wasn’t sure at the time whether that statement was meant as a compliment or a criticism, but I accepted it as the former because the person assessing me obviously couldn’t distinguish between what was ‘eccentric’ and what was ‘childish’. In the 1970s most men liked to think they were the dominant one in any relationship and it has always puzzled me how we arrived at that conclusion considering that most of us never grow up and that our sense of humour ranges between immature to downright infantile and rarely strays away from either. I mean, how can we ever be taken seriously by the opposite sex when we still laugh at fart jokes and snigger whenever someone slips an unintentional rude word into an otherwise serious conversation? Servicemen tend to use black humour in order to cope with some of the horrible situations they find themselves in, but when that deserts them their brains automatically revert to their default childish humour configuration. I still do it. I can’t help it. I once went out with a rather serious but good looking woman who was into birdwatching and towards the end of our first proper and ultimately disastrous date she pointed out that there was a blue tit in a tree ahead of us. Throughout the day I had successfully feigned enthusiasm about her interest in all creatures feathered, but the overly excited manner in which she pointed out to me yet another bird perched in a tree in the far distance proved too much. I had, by that time, reached the extreme limit of my boredom threshold and, unable to make a witty and intelligent response to her observation, my Y-chromosome immediately took over any brain functions I might have possessed, making me involuntarily snigger and say, leeringly with a small chuckle, “You just said tit.”
I never saw her again after that day. I didn’t even have sex with her, which, due to the shallow nature I possessed back then, was all I was after in the first place.
We arrived at the TA hall in Stretford at around six in the evening. The hall had been home to the Irish Rangers, who had been living there since the start of the strike, and was kitted out with metal-framed beds, pillows and exercise sleeping bags, which we endearingly called ‘green turds’. We each had a small locker in which to keep what stuff we had and after we dropped our stuff onto our beds we were divided up into groups of six-man fire teams and given a briefing by the WO1 who was in charge. He showed us around a Green Goddess and instructed us on how to couple and uncouple the hoses and how to recognise where the fire hydrants were on the street, after which we were kitted out with steel helmets and donkey jackets and each of us was issued a torch. I was on ‘RAF Fire Team 1’ with my friend Lockers, a driver and three others and that meant we would be starting our shift almost immediately. Fire Team 2 was on standby. At the end of his briefing, the WO1 pointed to a three-litre bottle of Bell’s whisky that was stood in the corner of his makeshift office and told us that it would be won by the first team who were out at a fire for longer than twelve hours. “Don’t worry, lads,” the WO1 reliably informed us, “we’ve been here for almost two months and it’s pretty quiet here, apart from the militants. No team’s ever been out for longer than two hours.”
Our shift started at 1900 hours. We were called out at 19.20. We hadn’t even had time to unpack our stuff.
Apart from Lockers, who I’d known since basic training, I can’t remember the names of the rest of our team, so I’ll just make some up. There was Geoff, our driver, who had recently been on crash course on how to drive and operate a Green Goddess, and three others, who I’ll call Tom, Dick and Harry.
With our siren wailing, we followed a police escort as we sped through the streets of Stretford towards our destination. Over the radio on board the Green Goddess, tuned into the police band, we heard what we were heading into. “It’s a big one,” crackled the voice over the airwaves. “An end-row terrace in a street of houses owned by Alcoholics Anonymous. We may need back-up.” My heart started to beat faster and it felt like it was going to burst out of my chest at any moment. The fear in the back seat of the fire engine was palpable. You could have cut the air with a knife. We were, not to beat around the bush, shitting ourselves. When we arrived at the scene it was worse than we could possibly have imagined. It was like a vision from Hell. It was an inferno. The whole house was ablaze. Flames were leaping out of the windows and the air was filled with smoke and heat.
The first thing we did after leaping out of the Green Goddess was search for a fire hydrant. Unlike in America where they are clearly visible above ground and painted red, hydrants in the UK are underground and marked with a small yellow sign bearing the letter H. For the untrained eye they are almost invisible, especially in the dark. The nearest one we could find was around the corner from where the Green Goddess was parked and so we began the task of unravelling and coupling the hoses in order for them to reach. The hoses leading from the pump in the Green Goddess were unravelled and trained onto the blazing house, and then the water was turned on at the hydrant.
“Hold tight onto those hoses, lads!” yelled the fire chief. “Remember you won’t be able to get a dental appointment at this time of night!”
The fire chief and the police were already at the house when we arrived at the scene. Although the firemen were on strike, the fire chiefs remained at work for safety reasons – our safety. A fire chief was present at each incident in order to protect us novices from our own reckless behaviour and to prevent us from becoming human torches. The police were there for the overtime.
We took turns at holding the hoses and dousing the house with pressurised water. After about an hour, as me and Lockers were waiting to take our turn the fire chief pointed to us and instructed us to follow him. Along with a policeman, he led us around to the back of the house – the flames were leaping out of the windows at the front of the house and we felt some relief and gratitude towards him for leading us to where it seemed safer.
The relief was short-lived.
The first thing we noticed was a body lying in the middle of the back garden covered in a blanket.
“I . . . is that a dead body,” I asked nervously.
“Aye, lad,” said the policeman, casually lifting up a corner of the blanket, revealing the face of the corpse. “Take a look. E’s got a right good tan from the ‘eat, you know. Looks like he’s been on ‘is holidays, dun’t it.”
“Did he, you know . . .”
“What? Burn to death? No lad, e’s a bit charred but it were asphyxiation from the smoke that got ‘im. From what we can gather ‘e came ‘ome pissed an’ kicked over the gas fire. ‘Is wife didn’t ‘elp ‘im and her and her kid got out and left ‘im behind.”
“No, lad, ‘e didn’t ‘elp ‘im, either.”
The fire chief handed me an axe. “Right, lad. Ten minutes is all the time you’re allowed in there without breathing apparatus.”
What? In where?
“Your mate will be right behind you with a hose.”
What?! Why would Lockers be right behind me with a hose?
“There’s fire trapped in the walls of the house. Use the axe to smash holes in the wall to let the fire escape, otherwise this place will be burning until doomsday. Your mate will douse the flames with his hose.”
What??!! Douse the what? With what?
“Now, it’ll be dark in there so feel your way around with the back of your hand. Don’t use your palm because if it touches any exposed electrics your hand will automatically close and you’ll end up lying next to this chap here.”
WHAT???!!! No! No! No! I didn’t want to go in there.
I was twenty-four years old and I’d always envisioned my death to be something more spiritual, like dying peacefully in my sleep with a smile on my face at the age of 105 with a couple of buxom young women - one blonde, one brunette – on each arm after having all-night sex. Burning to death had never been on my list of ‘things to do before I was thirty’ and it was definitely not the way I wanted to shuffle off this mortal coil.
The fire chief patted us both on the back, pointed to the open back door of the burning house, and said, “Right then, lads, in you go!”
“Try not to breathe too much!” I heard the fire chief calling from behind us. “And when you breathe out, cough. It’ll clear your lungs quicker!”
Fear gripped me like a vice as I entered the building. I was terrified. The heat was so intense it felt like I was under a desert sun and I could smell the acrid stench of smoke in the air all around me. I don’t know how Lockers was feeling, but I suspect he was as terrified as me in those first few moments. But then something happened. The fear suddenly vanished and I swung the axe at the wall. As it smashed a hole into the plasterboard, flames shot out and were quickly drowned by the water from Lockers’ hose.
In the ten minutes me and Lockers spent in there, the floors were caving in under our feet, we could hear glass shattering and the sound of creaking wood and things crashing around in the upstairs bedrooms. Were it not for the adrenaline taking over I would have been frozen in terror.
Instead, all I felt was exhilaration. In those ten minutes I felt truly alive. They were the most exciting ten minutes I had ever spent in my entire life and the first thing I did when I left that burning, smoke filled building was light up a cigarette.
Two more RAF fire crews were called out to assist us and it took all night to extinguish the fire and water down the charred and smoking embers of what was once a home to three people. At 8.30 the following morning we rolled up the hoses and loaded them back onto the Green Goddess. It was only then that we noticed that we had missed the nearest fire hydrant and that was because we were parked on top of it.
For two months the Irish Rangers had fought small fires and the three litre bottle of Bell’s whisky had stood invitingly and unclaimed in the corner of the WO1s office. The RAF arrived and we won it on our first night there. The Irish Rangers were not pleased, more so because we wouldn’t share it with them.
When we arrived back at the TA hall after that first call-out I unfurled my sleeping bag and fell into a deep sleep. I woke hours later to the smell of freshly cooked food prepared by the army cooks and eased myself, bleary-eyed and with mad hair, out of my green turd. I was still smelling of smoke and sweat as I stumbled to the showers, but after I had cleaned myself up and got dressed I felt vaguely human again. I went to the dining area at the end of the hall and joined the queue.
There was generally two choices at mealtimes – take it or leave it. If I had been a vegetarian (which I am most definitely not) or didn’t like chicken I would have starved to death. Chicken was served up each and every day, and as the days and weeks dragged on we would stand in the queue at mealtimes and make clucking sounds, knowing that when we reached the servery there would be the inevitable chicken meal awaiting us – roast chicken, fried chicken, chargrilled chicken, chicken curry, chicken chasseur, chicken salad, chicken fricassee, chicken and chips, chicken soup, chicken pasta, chicken with chicken. If nothing else, the army cooks at Stretford certainly knew how to prepare chicken and their imagination regarding the many varieties in which to serve it up knew no bounds. If they never learned to cook any other type of meat they would at least be able to find gainful employment at KFC when they left the army. We ate so much chicken during the fireman’s strike that we became chickoholics and it still amazes me to this day that our feathery friends were not driven to the very brink of extinction.
After a few days of easing myself out of my green turd I discovered that I had been given a nickname. It wasn’t a nickname I would have chosen myself, but then only narcissistic monkeys with overinflated egos choose their own nicknames. A nickname should be given to you by your mates as a term of endearment, a form of acceptance into an exclusive club, a male-only bonding ritual and my mates had been watching me waking up each morning with increasing interest and fascination. Apparently they didn’t think I climbed or crawled or jumped or stepped out of my sleeping bag. They thought I slithered out of it.
And from that moment on I was known as Snakey.
The fireman’s strike ended on January 12th 1978, but we were kept at Stretford for another three days – just in case. We never attended such a raging inferno again during our time at Stretford and for the most part we had to combat boredom by reading books or watching television. But for us the fireman’s strike was not just about fighting fires. It brought back a sense of camaraderie that seemed to have been missing for a long time in the RAF. We had to look out for each other when we were called out. If not there was a real possibility that we may have ended up like that poor alcoholic, covered in a blanket, looking like he had just been on his holidays.
It also cured once and for all my fear of fire.
But most of all the time I spent as a temporary fireman was, believe it or not, fun. I’ll leave you with a newspaper clipping which appeared in the Daily Telegraph, following a report read by the inestimable Reginald Bosanquet at the end of the ITV News at Ten, a spot usually reserved for one of the more amusing stories of the day, but which, in this particular instance, sent all the cat-lovers of the British Isles spiralling out of their litter trays and into a national rage of indignation.
‘NEWS AT TEN’ REPORT UPSETS CAT-LOVERS
Cat-lovers complained to Independent television last night after ‘News at Ten’, read by Reginald Bosanquet, ended with a report about a cat being rescued from a tree by troops manning a Green Goddess.
The report said that the troops recued the cat after a plea by an elderly woman, accepted her invitation to tea and biscuits, then ran over the cat on their way back to the barracks.
The complaining cat-lovers said they found the incident far from amusing.
We, on the other hand, found it hilarious.