Does life exist after death?

Weighing the Soul

Although taught by many religions, I have always experienced difficulty in accepting the concept of some form of life after death. The form of afterlife can vary between religions from resurrection, reincarnation to some form of continued existence. The religious beliefs of most of us are heavily influenced by our parents even if they are non-practising. As children we tend to accept without question what our parents say and this is often reinforced by other forms of religious teaching external to the home. It is not until our individual minds mature are we able to question some of the teachings. Many possibly never do and prefer to store any questions of the divine into an area of the brain marked sacred and untouchable, an area not to be delved into.

We are normally taught about a mysterious undefined “thing” that we all possess called the soul that apparently exists for each of us although no one can show one or has ever seen one. If you pause for a moment and try to locate your own soul now you will probably be unsuccessful. We are somehow supposed to believe that after we die and our bones and flesh are nothing more than dust, this unspecified essence of our former selves will continue for eternity.

A vast number of people including myself believe in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution which is now more than just theory. This shows how all life is constantly evolving and splitting into different species. even human beings, (Homo sapiens), have evolved as other common genetic ancestors like Neanderthals have died out.

I was taught that only human have souls and somehow animals do not. Although as a child I accepted this, I would now question how those that cannot even see their own soul, if it exists, can determine whether any other creature has one. As the human race evolved there must have been a point in time when our ancestors were more animal than human. At which point was it determined that a particular person had a soul but their parents did not? Was it when a descendant was say 51% more human by today’s terms than their parents? Did anyone tell them? Presumably this also meant the souls of these early ancestors still exist somewhere but somehow, their parents who did not possess a soul have gone into oblivion. It does seem to me a logical impossibility to make such a determination.

I also wonder what is the purpose of this essence of our being after our death? Will it also have the ability to think and reason without a brain? I find the concept of going to some for of heaven or nirvana for eternity to be completely mind numbing.

As you may have already guessed, I personally do not believe in life after death or the existence of a soul. What I believe exists after death is exactly the same as existed before birth, oblivion. I do understand there is a will in the human psyche for the need of an afterlife but belief and desire will never change whether life actually exists after death or not.

The thought of eventual oblivion does not bother me at all in the same way I was not concerned about events in the universe or the world before I was born. I tend to be pragmatic about an afterlife. It either exists, or it does not, nothing I or anyone else says or does will change that. If an afterlife does exist then one day will all know the answer to that when we eventually die. If an afterlife does not exist, then none of us are going to worry about it after we are gone.

It does seem strange that after the thousands of years mankind has inhabited the earth, the answers about an afterlife in terms of proof rather than belief remain unanswered.

Strange as it may seem, I am still not an atheist.

Night of the Frogs

Premier Pet Products Squeeze Meeze Dog Toy - Frog, LatexAs a firefighter it is not unusual to attend an incident on a neighbouring fire stations ground or even further afield. Frequently if a neighbouring station is already attending an incident when a further incident occurs, it is normally the neighbouring stations that will attend. This does mean firefighters not only have to learn an intimate knowledge of their own fire stations ground but also the topographical layout of other stations too. Other reasons why a firefighter will go off his own patch, (area), is if the number of fire appliances, (engines), needed to cover the potential risk presented by a particular incident is more than are based at the local station, then neighbouring stations will also attend. When I was a Turntable Ladder operator based at Plaistow Fire Station, it was not unusual to get called several times a day to the Ford motor plant at Dagenham as Plaistow was where the nearest such appliance was based at the time. The final main reason for going to an incident is that the situation faced by the local station is too great for them to handle on their own. In these cases the officer-in-charge will call for assistance via radio with what is known as a make-up call.  Make-up means make pumps four, six, ten or however many the officer-in-charge considers will be necessary to deal with the situation in both the number of pumping or specialist appliances and manpower. If an incident is large enough, the additional appliances will come from all over Greater London.

I went to one such incident in Barking in the 1970’s. This was to the warehouse of a large goods importer which faced onto the main A13 road.  The warehouse was built mainly of sheet metal covering a steel joist construction which allowed for a large interior storage area. In this particular case, a fire had broken out inside the storage area which in turn spread rapidly though the exposed boxes of stored goods. As large as the fire was, there was nothing particularly unusual about this fire and during the course of my career, I went to quite a few incidents like this.

I say there was nothing unusual except for one unique feature which presented a bizarre hazard. Stored inside the warehouse were hundreds of cardboard boxes containing a toy probably imported for Hong Kong. The toy was a hollow plastic frog with a spring fitted to a sucker pad inside which was in turn fixed to the base of the frog. The idea behind the toy was quite simple, children would push down on the frog causing the spring to compress and the sucker pad would adhere to the inside to prevent the spring releasing. The sucker would then slowly lose its adhesion causing the spring to suddenly release which in turn would make the frog leap into the air. The cardboard boxes were quite large with each one probably containing several thousand toy frogs stored loose inside. Due to a mixture of both fire and water damage, the cardboard boxes had become sodden spilling the contents and leaving hundreds of thousands of toy frogs strewn all over the floor.

As the fire came under control, teams of firefighters entered the building to carry out more localised firefighting within the warehouse. Like many buildings involved in a fire, the electricity supply had been cut off and it was dark inside, it was also during the night. As firefighters trampled around the building they could not help but tread on masses of the toy frogs. The weight of the firefighters caused the springs inside the frogs to compress and be held in a compressed state by the sucker pad. It was not long before a firefighter felt something hit him in the face in the dark. Soon there was a chain reaction of pinging noises followed by expletive cries from firefighters as thousands of the toy frogs started jumping everywhere in the dark.

In the end, everyone was glad when they could leave this artificial zoological mayhem behind. I wonder how many accident books contained the entry, “Injured by a flying frog.”

Teacher stole my sweets


When I reflect back on my school life at the various teachers who educated me I must admit they were all very good bar one. This was the same female teacher who tried to force me to eat a disgusting mashed potato concoction at a school dinner with disastrous results. I was now about eight years old and my previous class teacher, a male maths master and a wonderful educator had moved on to pastures new. Our new teacher was also new to the school and as such an unknown factor.

The class experienced our new teachers qualities on her first day. Our previous exercise books were withdrawn and new ones issued. The difference between the quality of the two books was like the difference between chalk and cheese. The pages of our previous book were smooth and ideal for practising our scrawlish writing when composing an essay. The paper of the new books was rough and lumpy almost the same consistency as woodchip wallpaper and a similar amount of ingrained lumps.  Our pens were the standard issue wooden handled pen with a steel nib that looked similar to a dart. These pens always left everyone’s fingers ink-stained when used. Even if some children could afford fountain pens they were not allowed to use them. The unsuitability of our new exercise books became obvious the first time we wrote in them. The absorbency of paper was similar to blotting paper and one could almost hear the sound of the ink being sucked from the pen into the paper with the consequent growing ink blot. The rough particles within the paper also caused the points of the pen nib to split in two depositing even more ink on the paper. I don’t suppose the occasional dart practice with the pens on the wooden back of an open desk top helped much, but the pens were remarkably durable.

Out new teacher berated everyone for sloppy disgraceful work without considering for a moment that she was the real cause of the problem. For children who up to this moment had a degree of pride in the progress of our handwriting skills, the admonishment was quite disheartening. My classmates were not rebellious by nature but we all experienced a permanently unhappy mood with the new teacher and even small children can foster dreams off sweet revenge.

The year was now 1954 and I was eight years old. As strange as it may seem I had never tasted a sweet in my life. In post-war Britain, sugar was still rationed until 1953 as were sweets. Although I cannot remember how many sweets it was possible to buy each week, I think it would have been a derisory amount. I suspect my mother swapped her sweet ration coupons with other people in exchange for other more common sense things like butter or meat coupons. As for myself, I never missed sweets simply because it is difficult to yearn for something you have never had.

During the course of 1954, classmates started bring sweets to school as they came off the rationing system. These sweets were never shared but our so called classmates would take great pleasure at slowly devouring one during playtime and showing their envious friends how much they were enjoying it by the looks of relish on their faces. As with all children, some of my classmates had something I did not and I felt I should have them too. I delicately raised the question of sweets with my mother by blurting out loudly something like, “Mum can I have some sweets”? It was only with the nagging persistence that all children seem to possess that my mother finally relented and came home one day with some sweets just for me. I will always recall them, they were a tube of sweets known as Refreshers. These were like a hard tablet that fizzed and dissolved in the mouth and tasted really nice. To me these were not just any old sweets, they were “my” sweets, the first sweets I had ever owned in my life and as such were to be treasured. My mother told me to save the sweets until playtime at school the following day.

I recall the very next day feeling as proud as a peacock as first thing the next morning at school, sitting next to my classmate on our double seated desks, pulling this unopened tube of sweets from my pocket and showing him my treasure. It was as I was doing this a hand descended from the heavens like the hand of God and pulled the tube of sweets from my grasp. I looked around to see our female class teacher looming over me and scolding me for producing sweets in class. My teacher told me in a stern voice that the sweets were confiscated. It was not like I had ever had sweets before to make flourishing sweets in class a regular habit. In my childish ways I felt I had been unjustly treated. What was worse, the first sweets I had ever possessed in my first eight years of existence were gone in a flash, unopened, uneaten and untasted. Come playtime, the thoughts I had of tasting the first sweets in my life were completely dashed.

By this stage of my life, I was no longer required to remain for school dinners and could go home for lunch. At home my mother asked me how I liked the sweets and I told her my tale of woe. All my mother said was “I see” and then carried on with her chores. My mother was never a great person for telling anyone her thoughts.

During afternoon lessons everyone including myself was in deep concentration as we attempted to scrawl an essay into our ink thirsty, blotting paper type, exercise books. Everyone nearly jumped out their seats as a sudden crash of thunder tore through the classroom. The door to the classroom was located in a corner of the room and laid flat against the wall when opened. The noise of the sudden crash was caused by the door being forcefully thrown open and banging against the wall. As we all looked up I froze in horror as I saw my mother framed within the doorway. My mother quickly looked around the room to get her bearings and then without hesitation strode towards my bossy teacher who was standing at her desk and help out her hand with the words “My sons sweets please”. It was not a polite timid request, it was more of a forceful demand. I stared in disbelief as my teacher without saying a word, meekly opened her desk and handed my tube of sweets to my mother. All mother said was thank you as she turned and walked out of the room. Somehow my mothers thank you had an entire lecture of admonishment tied up in both her tone and those two words. I imagine the statement “Don’t you ever dare touch my sons sweets again” were somehow compressed into that simple thank you but my teacher was certainly under no misapprehension of the forcefulness of my mothers intentions.

As my mother disappeared I wished the earth would open up and swallow me. I was under no illusion that I was now to feel the full wrath of my teacher. To my surprise, she was for once nice to the class and especially nice to me. On reflection in later years I suspect she was nice rather than nasty just in case my mother returned. To me and my classmates my mother was something of a hero and I am sure we would have hung a medal on her had one been available. During the afternoon playtime we all giggled at this brief spectacle of a uneven clash of adult titans. I think we all felt pleased too that our bossy schoolteacher had got her long overdue comeuppance. They say revenge is sweet, for schoolchildren, revenge is sweeter than real sweets.


A personal spooky moment

All Saints (The Old Church) ChingfordI can only recall two events in my life where I have experienced what can be described as spooky moments. One was on the day of the 9/11 terrorist acts in New York and which I have already written an article about. The second event occurred while I was watching television one Saturday evening.

In the 1980’s  a television drama series was produced called “London’s Burning”. The series was about the lives of one watch, (crew), on a London fire station. All the cast were actors and the station was given a fictitious name although I recognised the film location as Dockhead Fire Station.

Being a London firefighter myself I watched the first two episodes but unfortunately quickly became bored with the series. I suppose to myself the fire station life portrayed was nothing like I recognised from my own experiences. Having said that, I do recognise the television producers need to make a program to entertain a much wider audience than real firefighters. From the critics and public reviews, the producers would certainly appear to have done that. There was also one beneficial spin-off from the series in terms of recruitment into the fire service. Prior to the series, there was always a steady but small trickle of new applicants which became a flood by the time the series had come to an end. The program proved so popular, at least one additional series was made before the program reached the end of its natural shelf life. Apart from the original two episodes, I saw none of these either.

Probably something like eight to ten years later, one of the series was re-screened. During the intervening time my father had also passed on.

I never was the greatest of television fans outside a good documentary as I pursued other interests, genealogy being amongst them. I did however find myself one Saturday night at a loose end. Frequently we either entertain friends or are in turn equally entertained by them. This particular Saturday night though was one of the few when not much else was going on.

I thought I would settle down in the armchair and watch television for once. Unfortunately I could not find any programs to keep my attention and ended up feeling a little bored. I suppose we all have done a little channel hopping from time to time, using the television remote control to flick from channel to channel but not really finding anything to our particular interest. This is how I was this Saturday evening.

Eventually I came across a repeat episode of London’s Burning and watched it. Had there been any other program of greater interest on at the time I would have watched that instead. I cannot remember the full story line of this particular episode but I do recall towards the end of a make-believe rescue where a person had jumped from the window of a building, burning I think, only to become impaled on spiked railings in front of the house. In the script, this individual subsequently died of injuries and the final scene was at the end of this individuals funeral which had just taken place. The scene was of the watch members standing around the earth mound of a freshly made grave making their various remarks about the individual. As the crew members walked away, the camera panned slowly upwards away from the grave to a distance shot across the cemetery. It was at this point that I froze in total disbelief.

The same spot the make-believe grave was located on was also the exact location of my own fathers grave. Because this particular view across the cemetery is deeply etched into my mind, I could pin-point the location with great accuracy. I do appreciate that at the time the series was made my father was still alive and as I did not watch the series, I was also unaware of this location at the time. It seems to me the television producers had probably piled earth on the grass of  as yet unused ground of the cemetery to make the spot look like a newly filled grave.

I am not a superstitious person or one that believes in ghoulies, ghosties, or things that go bump in the night. What I saw that evening did however send a shiver down my spine. Any time I recall what I saw including writing this article does the same. I do find the co-incidence factor however quite amazing. For a person who rarely watches television and particularly this series to by chance witness such a personal scene would make phenomenal bookmakers odds. Never-the-less, it happened. One thing I do know, I have never watched another episode of this series since.

A tragic tale

Red Fire EngineTelevision and films often portray a firefighters job as something of a heroic occupation tinged with a hint of glamour as they dash around towns on large fire appliances, (engines), with flashing lights and sirens. The truth however is often far removed from the perceived image of film producers. The image normally seen by the public is when a passing fire appliance is seen on it’s way to an incident. To the firefighter however the journey to an incident is “dead time” and their task will only begin on arrival and the quicker they can safely arrive, the quicker they can render assistance to however is in need of help. I always remember the sound advice given to me when I started my career by an old timer who had been through the Blitz. He told me never to forget that every time “the bells go down”, someone out there is shouting for help and you are the only one in the world at that moment of time that can help them.

As a firefighters career progresses they will encounter many and completely varied types of incident. Some will be large fires, others small. Road traffic accidents, people trapped in lifts, animals in trouble, disasters and so on, the list is almost endless. It is only by a combination of both experience and constant training that a firefighter knows how to tackle any incident no matter how daunting it may seem when they first arrive on scene. It is both the hard training and watching firefighters at an incident that the public least see apart from chance passers-by.

Although to the individuals that require the assistance of the fire service, the reason for our arrival is often to them a major upheaval in their life, to the firefighter, every incident is also a learning opportunity that never ends throughout the span of their career. Some incidents are amusing, run of the mill, are of special interest, sometimes bizarre or unfortunately occasionally tragic.

I have attended numbers of tragic incidents in my career, not all of them on my own fire stations ground. The Moorgate underground train disaster was one such incident I attended. Some incidents due to there size or nature mean that they are too large in manpower requirements for the local crew to deal with. Also work at a incident frequently requires hard physical exertion. The amount of effort is dependent on the task in hand and is rather like the difference between the short concentrated effort of a sprinter or the longer stamina challenging effort of a marathon runner. Either way there is no way a local fire crew can be humanly expected to maintain such an effort for the entire length of their shift. To overcome this problem, relief crews from all around the fire brigades area are brought in to work about three hour stints at a incident before they are themselves in turn relieved by others.

The one tragic incident I always remember was a fire that occurred in Star Lane, Canning Town probably in 1967 but I cannot be sure of the date after all these years. This was in a four storey tenement block since demolished opposite Clarence Road. A fire in a enclosed apartment produces a lethal cocktail of gases and heat.  That particular evening I was riding a fire appliance known as the Pump Escape. It was so called as apart from being a front line fire appliance with a heavy duty pump, it also carried an escape ladder. Although no longer in use, this was the ladder that some readers may remember had two large carriage wheels attached to it to assist manoeuvrability. If more than one fire appliance went to an incident, it was always the Pump Escape that led the way. The prime purpose of this appliance and the crew aboard it was for rescue purposes if required, with follow up fire appliance dealing with water supplies and the like. As an incident wound down in size, this was always the first appliance to be released from the scene of an incident as it was more important to make it’s rescue capability available again.

As an individual, I really liked and trusted the Escape Ladder. Although it was large and heavy, about one ton in weight, requiring four firefighters to handle and manoeuvre it, it was very dependable and would take almost unlimited punishment at an incident. Lighter all metal ladders have subsequently replaced this ladder.

When we arrived at this particular incident in Star Lane, it was at night time and we could see volumes of dark smoke billowing from a open window on the third floor. Constant training meant the crew did not need lengthy instructions what to do, we all knew as part of a team our individuals roles and what was required. We immediately slipped the escape ladder from the appliance, it makes a crashing noise as the considerable weight born by the carriage wheels hit the ground. We wheeled the ladder across the road at speed as we needed the momentum to get the thing over the kerbstone onto the pavement. There was a small communal area between the front of the building and the pavement. This was protected by a wooden picket fence supported at intervals by upright concrete posts. The entrance way to the flats had a further two concrete posts on either side making it too narrow to get the escape ladder through, leaving the only option being to make our own entrance through the fence. The weight and strength of the escape ladder also made it an idea tool for the job, this time as a battering ram as we charged it at the fence. On our third attempt, the section of fence collapsed completely allowing us to wheel the escape ladder up to the building. The ladder was quickly extended to the third floor window. It was not necessary to enter the apartment by the window as during the time we had been engaged in fence breaking, other colleagues from our second appliance wearing breathing apparatus had managed to gain entrance to the apartment by a front door on a landing. It was still an important requirement to have the unused escape ladder in position as firefighters know from experience it is important to have two means of escape from a premise if possible. One never can be certain how a fire situation will develop when one first arrives on scene.

As all this activity was taking place, the officer in charge of the incident would have sent an assistance message by radio as we arrived prefixed by the word priority. Priority messages take precedence over all other radio traffic and a control officer will stop any other radio traffic to answer this type of message in isolation. Assistance message are short and abbreviated and require no explanation to the control officer receiving the message. In this particular incident the message would have been “Make pumps four, persons reported”. What this message means is a further two fire appliance would need to be sent from other fire stations for manpower requirements and that there was reason to believe people were involved or trapped in the fire. The Control Room would immediately send the nearest  available additional fire appliances and also contact the Ambulance and Police control rooms by direct line to order an ambulance and the police to the incident. Again Control Room to Control Room communications do not require lengthy explanations as each will respond without question to the requests of the other. Senior fire brigade officers would also be mobilised. This background activity is also helpful to the officer-in-charge of an incident as it relieves them of additional concerns and allows them to concentrate on the situation in hand.

I made my way up to the apartment via the internal staircase to be met by two colleagues each rushing down carrying a small unconscious child. As I reached the doorway of the apartment another colleague who was part of the breathing apparatus crew emerged with a third unconscious child which he promptly thrust in my arms. Both my colleague and I knew without talking that he would have been exhausted searching the darkness of the apartment by touch for people in incredibly hot oven like temperatures inside the apartment. I hurried back down the stairs with the small child in one arm and administered both mouth to mouth and cardiac resuscitation using my other hand and mouth. It is possible to do this with a small child.

As I reached the roadway, I could see and hurried to an awaiting ambulance which had arrived during all the other activity going on. As I took the child I was carrying into the back of the ambulance the scene was like something out of Bedlam. The other two children were already on board as were the parents. The parents were shouting and screaming in shock and the three children were still unconscious. It was one of those situations I instantly knew what actions to take. The ambulance attendant was attempting to resuscitate one of the children leaving the child I was carrying and another still needing urgent attention. Clearly it was only possible for the ambulance attendant to do one thing at a time and the priority being the children. Neither I nor the ambulance attendant knew if the parents were injured but again one knew if they were screaming, they were alive and as such, a lessor priority. This still led a third child unattended when a Roman Catholic priest popped his head through the rear door and asked if he could help. I immediately told him to get aboard and with that the back doors of the ambulance closed and we sped off into the night towards Queen Mary’s Hospital.

I told the priest to immediately give cardiac and mouth to mouth resuscitation to the third child but unfortunately he was not trained in first aid. I quickly felt the third child’s pulse on the carotid artery in the neck but could feel none. The carotid artery is a easier and more positive location to feel a pulse rather than the wrist. This left me with no choice other to give the child a thump on the chest in an attempt to induce a cardiac shock which sometimes makes the heart start beating again. I also quickly showed the priest how to cover the child’s nose and mouth with his own mouth and breathe air into the lungs while at the same time using two fingers on the chest to rapidly and continuously pump the heart. A child’s heart beats much faster than an adult making a need for much faster although gentler pressure. It more like constant prodding with two finders. The priest learned his task rapidly but the journey to the hospital was a traumatic one. The route had a considerable number of sharp bends which threw us all from side to side as it sped along. The anxious cries of the parents added to the trauma of the journey.

We eventually arrived at Queen Mary’s Hospital and hurried into the accident and emergency area past other patients awaiting treatment and directly into the treatment room. The ambulance service had already advised the hospital while we were on route of the situation and they had immediately cleared all emergency treatment rooms to await our arrival. As I handed my child over to the waiting doctors and nurses my part of the operation had come to an end. It’s at times like this when suddenly one becomes very conscious that you are like a fish out of water. Standing in the patient waiting area wearing full firefighting uniform including my helmet and axe but with no fire. My fire tunic would have smelt a bit too as smoke from incidents does cling to clothing for a while. In some ways I felt at that moment as ridiculous as a balloon seller when they reach their last balloon to sell. An adult standing with only one balloon crying who wants to buy this.

After about 10 minutes a doctor came back out of the treatment room and told me the sad news that all three children had died. I assume their small lungs could not cope with the lethal cocktail of fumes. Their age ranges must have been about from one to four or five and somehow this seemed to make things more tragic. For me there was nothing else left to do but find a well earned cop of tea in the hospital and telephone my control room to make arrangements to transport me back to my station.

The reason I raise this incident is not only because it is one that vividly remains in my mind, but because it is the type of thing that firefighters experience away from the public eye. There are no gongs or medals, just incidents that one has the inner satisfaction of knowing one has done the best that one has trained for. As for myself being the person in the ambulance? Well the fire service work, train and act as a team which pays real dividends in times of crisis. I was only part of a team and due to circumstances made that trip in the ambulance. If the circumstances had been slightly different then it would have been another colleague of mine in that ambulance instead of myself.

As to the Roman Catholic priest who rendered great assistance that night I never heard of again. I never knew his name, or where he came from or what happened to him afterwards or later in his career. I only know we shared a short moment in time together like ships that pass in the night.

%d bloggers like this: