Three Score years and Ten

70Two years ago was my 70th birthday, a notable date in anyone’s life in reaching the biblical three scores years and ten. . In some ways it is a day to reflect on ones life and to take stock of where one is now and perhaps how one arrived at this point in time. In many ways it does represent a lot of proverbial water that has flowed under the equally proverbial bridge. I was a professional firefighter most of my working life and I do belong to a closed group on Facebook which the majority of my retired colleagues also subscribe to. It is a good way of keeping in touch with numerous old friends.

I did write an article for that group of my 70th birthday reflecting on a potted history of my life. I had forgotten all about the article until I recently came across it and I though I would republish it here.


 

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Well folks, for me, today is the big 70.

It is that day which throughout my life has always been vaguely somewhere in my distant future and now it has finally arrived. It’s strange how only yesterday while still in my sixties it seemed my fifties and all the memories they evoked were still just around the corner, and today that era has become remote and distant. An era that was cherished but can never be touched again.

Even now as I reflect on my past life, it is difficult to comprehend where all those years have gone or how the changes I have seen came about. Born just after the end of WW2, I was one of the original baby boomers. One of those that grew up in the era that was supposed to be ‘in a land fit for heroes’, and I as a baby, like everyone else born at the same time, was expected to be part of that vanguard that would lead our country into a bright and prosperous new world that was the future.

Although I was born in Dulwich Village, an area that is now considered quite salubrious, I certainly did not come from a moneyed family, quite the opposite. Although I lived in what was a large house, it was still never-the-less a case of coal-fired cooking ranges, gas lighting, tin bath hung on the wall and outside toilets.

It was also an era of extreme elitism where people were supposed to know their place, an unhealthy period which many of the older generation had been conditioned to accept. I first encountered this preconditioning through the education system. It was a system that was supposed to allow the brightest to succeed, and to train the remaining masses for work in the factories as plebiscites. It was not until much later in life I realised that even if everyone was equally bright, the goal posts consisting of grammar and secondary modern schools determined by an iniquitous 11+ exam system would have been moved to achieve the same effect. At that time I did not understand how people went to university. My only experience to that highest of all education systems is what I had seen in films. That always portrayed a life of the rich and privileged and certainly not for the common plebs like myself.

So at the age of 15 I went to work, initially as a telegram boy on a push bike, and a year later on a motorbike. It was a fun time for someone who did not yet really know what they wanted to do in life, other than there was no way I was going to work in a factory. It was also the post school period when one knew that in a way, the future was still irrelevant. At that time, one still had to do three years national service when the age of 18 was achieved. Real working life did not begin for males until they reached the age of 21.

Well things happened during that period particularly the scrapping of conscription. That suddenly opened up all sorts of new vistas and the immediate one I was facing was not particularly enamouring to me. 18 was also the age in the Post Office when I would cease to be a telegram boy with all the juvenile fun that went with it. I would have to become a postman and the prospect of trudging the streets of London with a heavy sack of mail slung over my back was the least appealing thing I could imagine. It was a future I could see that had no real prospects and also one of relatively low pay. It was a possible future I held in dread as inwardly I knew I was capable of so much more.

London TLThe question was what future until one of the lads where I worked suddenly came into the office to announce he was joining West Ham Fire Brigade, which covered part of the area where I was based. His tales of what the fire service would be like flooded my imagination and within weeks Dave Clarke who worked with me and myself had both independently joined West Ham Fire Brigade too.

In my own case, the entire enrolment process from walking through the front door of the fire station in Stratford Broadway, to completing my exams and successfully undertaking a medical process and also being offered a job took a total of 90 minutes. Something that is incomprehensible in today’s lengthy recruitment process. Little did I know as I walked through those fire station doors for the first time, it would be another 42 before I walked out of them for the last time. Those 42 years are as they say now history, but what a history that was.

Apart from the fire service side of my career it was also the beginning of the trade union side of my career too. That was only because I did not run fast enough when at a branch meeting the previous branch secretary suddenly resigned and before I knew it, I was his involuntary replacement. It was however a position that was to eventually see me rise to a high official status within the union in London and the main contact between politicians both in Parliament and County Hall. Now that I have retired, others quite rightly quickly replaced me and have since taken over the reins. All that I am now left with is mellowing thoughts of those times.

Now as I look around my largish home with equally large gardens set in the pleasant rural countryside of Somerset, the rooms bedecked with furniture and the like, I cannot but help wonder where on earth it all did come from and how did I achieve all this? Coming from quite poor and humble conditions when I was born until now, something must have happened in-between, but I cannot quite remember what except for perhaps making some wise choices at the right time. Joining the fire service was perhaps the wisest of the all.

With 42 years of service I cannot help but think of the generations of fire service people I have known. There was the generation in already in-situ when I joined, many who had seen war service. The generation that came and went when I first started, and the generation that had completed about two thirds of their career when I left. That is an awful lot of people most of whom I have fond memories of.

It does seem when I take a euphemistic view of life that when we are born, it is as if a small sandcastle representing myself had been built on a beach far away from the sea. Not a sandcastle in isolation though but one that is surrounded by the other sandcastles of people born about the same time and destined to become my future friends and colleagues. Far in the distance is a thin shimmering silver band which is the sea, but too far away to ever worry about. Many other sandcastles lay between mine and the sea representing my parents, aunts, uncles and forefathers. As the years have passed the incoming tide of time has sadly claimed all these other sandcastles, as well as those of a few friends and colleagues who passed on well before their time. Now the incoming tide of time is nearly lapping around the base of my castle. I suppose I can achieve a degree of immortality by surrounding my little castle with a layer of concrete, but then I know the time will quickly come when my little castle is on its own in total isolation, and in a alien environment too, as everything around me changes against my wishes and beyond my control. All my friends and colleagues would have disappeared. Given the choice, I think I prefer allowing nature to take its natural course.

I suppose I like the rest of us have dwelt with thoughts from time to time, if we had out time all over again, would we choose to take different career paths and so on? For most it is probably circumstance that initially determines the paths we tread. Although I now like to think I have the confidence to succeed in anything I might have chosen to do, the truth is I neither had that confidence that comes with experience, or the money needed to follow many careers. If we could go back it time, would that also mean the hindsight we now have would also come with us to be our foresight for the future? Probably not. I would hate to have lived a life where my future was mapped out in advance, knowing what was to happen each day.
That is what I loved so much about the fire service. Like most of us, it trained us to give us the confidence we needed in ourselves to handle whatever scenario we were likely to face. It even gave us the confidence to deal with situations that no one could plan in advance for. We learnt to work and live with each other and with few exceptions, have respect for each other too. It was also the thought that each day we came to work, we could be dragged away from the more mundane routines at an instance notice to deal with the unexpected in a professional manner, and all in the public eye. So would I have chosen a different path if circumstances allowed? Well that really is a impossible question to answer. What I do know is after all these years; I am more than well content and satisfied to have chosen the path I did. I am also more than pleased to have met all of you.

I own part of a Fire Engine

TL 240 FLM

Turntable Ladder 240 FLM – © Paul Wood

Apart from working three years in the Post Office when I first left school, I spent the rest of my working life in the fire service. I joined the West Ham Fire Brigade a few day before my 18th birthda and later, became part of the London Fire Brigade in 1965 with the creation of the Greater London Council, (GLC), and enjoyed a thoroughly worthwhile career for 42 years. Despite popular misconception,   a firefighters job is far more than squirting water at flames. It is very technical job requiring vast amounts of knowledge of innumerable subjects as a Firefighter is expected to instantly deal with any hazard or to resolve any problem, irrespective of what it may be.

It is also a career filled with training courses on many subjects.One such intensive course I did was operating a Turntable Ladder often know as Aerial Ladders in the USA. These ladders extend to 100 feet in length and are used for both rescue and water tower purposes. One cannot just park these appliances anywhere and extend the ladders as they certainly are not elastic. Gaining the knowledge where to quickly site these vehicles in a emergency is all important. Knowledge of the effects of gravity is important too for the lower the angle of the ladder, the greater the strain on the entire vehicle. It’s rather like holding a broom erect above your head with your arm fully extended. That in itself is not too much of an effort but if you were then to lower the broom in a arc horizontally still with your arm fully extended, it will take a great deal of strength to achieve this.

Now I am retired and my career is rapidly disappearing into the past with each passing day. Fortunately social media has provided an outlet for retired firefighters like myself to remain in contact with colleagues and there is a large group on Facebook for retired London Firefighters.

In the past few months, members of this group became aware of an ex-London Fire Brigade Turntable Ladder becoming available for sale. When it was originally disposed of in 1981, it was bought by a tree surgery company to enable them to complete their work. After that it fell into disuse and many members of my group made individual donations which enable the successful purchase of this machine.

Given its age, it was surprising still in relatively good working condition and my group has now formed a preservation society for this machine. The objective is to fully restore this Turntable Ladder to its former glory and then exhibit it is various displays throughout the country. It is also hope that eventually it will also be available for hire at wedding and possibly even funerals. Given this type of vehicles flat rear, they have sadly, (including our machine), been used at hearses in the past for Firefighters who have tragically died in the line of duty.

A website has also been set up for the preservation society and this can be viewed at Tl-240 FJM Preservation Group

Firefighting stories



Apart from the first three years when I left school at 15, I have been a firefighter all my career, first in the County Borough of West Ham and then as a member of the London Fire Brigade when the Greater London Council was created in 1965. I was allowed to join three days before I was legally supposed to on my 18th birthday but rules could be more easily bent in those days. I finally retired 42 years later and believe that I may have been the  longest serving member of the fire service at that time. The latter years of my career were in a non-operational capacity due to age and eyesight.

I found my entire career to be a rich and rewarding experience where I attended many types of incident, not only fires but also many special services and a number of disasters. I have always felt acutely aware that what may have been run of the mill tasks for me,  were at the same time, often  major upheavals in life, sometimes tragic, for those who required assistance from the fire service.

With the passage of time, major incidents start to fade from the memory of man. One such incident that occurred on my own fire stations ground was a tower block of flats, (apartments), named Ronan Point which partially collapsed. For several decades just the name Ronan Point would conjure up memories to any UK resident. Now forty years later “Ronan what?” is a more likely response.

Some incidents however caused much amusement to my colleagues and I many which I still recall. I trust I will be able to share with you all.

 

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