Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The High Price of Comradeship

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The High Price of Comradeship

Article excerpt

I'm in danger of missing the deadline for this column, but I've got a good excuse: it's been delayed by a fire. Not, admittedly, a fire in my flat or, in fact, anywhere near me. It's about ten minutes down the road, where smoke is belching out of one of those shops that sell discounted knick-knacks for a pound. I was alerted to the situation when I left the house to buy milk and heard someone on the phone, yelling: "Big fire! Big fire by the Post Office!"

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Naturally, I was anxious to do my bit, so I went and joined the crowds gawping at the flashing lights. I stood there for about half an hour, saying all the right things ("It must have been an electrical fault" and "It looks like they've got it under control"). I don't want to be called a hero for all this. I just did what anyone would have done in the circumstances.

It was noticeable that the burning building brought strangers together. People who would normally have avoided eye contact were falling over each other to express the hope that nobody was hurt, and suggesting it's "a good job it's been so wet recently", as if in summertime the modest-sized blaze might have rampaged like an Australian bushfire all the way to Westminster and swallowed up Big Ben.

I think it was the sight of the fire brigade -everyone's favourite emergency force - that got us all as undeniably, if sheepishly, excited as we were. In the books we read at school about the different jobs that adults did, firemen popped up everywhere to hose down skyscrapers, toss cats out of windows and sprint down crumbling staircases to catch them outside. …

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