Friday, 18 February 2011


To the ancient among those present, the cup of humiliation comes bucket size and this week I drained it to its bitter dregs.

I gave up writing comic fiction - as I mentioned - because life, as Oscar Wilde observed, imitates art. That is not entirely true. I no longer write comic happenings: I live them.

Last Wednesday morning I got stuck in the bath and my wife summoned the fire brigade. Through that brief sentence flows a river of tears. The fire brigade arrived on a fire engine but, thank God, not ringing the bell. A very comely neighbour, alarmed by the sight of a fire engine, rang to ask if she could help. My wife, who hates to see me enjoying myself, said no.

For reasons I will rehearse later, I am nervous about summoning fire brigades. For these gentlemen I have nothing but praise. Although I could see the effort it cost them, they did not laugh once. Unlike my wife.

No doubt the account of their rescue will be marked with a star in the fire station occurrence book and generations of firemen yet unborn will let the welkin ring with their laughter. The two firemen who answered the call were made of sterner stuff. They weighed up the job with becoming gravity - and silently summoned a third. I still puzzle why they said, “No use asking Larry. He's too tall.”

I explained I had entered the bath to shower, stepped on the soap, shot in the air and was now wedged like an egg in a cup. A spoon being out of a question, I feared their thoughts were running towards corks in bottles. I did them a disservice. In a trice I was entirely surrounded by firemen. Willing hands seized me round body parts previously fire brigade free. I rose like a Botticelli Venus from the waves, adopting much the same discreet posture with the bath an unconvincing shell at my feet. We parted with mutual expressions of goodwill. They said to call them any time and in the face of such kindness it seemed churlish to say I hoped not.

It was in Chester that I summoned a fire crew for the first time. I had a wardrobe-sized cupboard in which to keep my drinks that lit up when you opened the door - an occurrence so frequent that a lady in a flat across the river thought I was semaphoring her. I remember it was the next morning by the time I had corrected her.

On the day of the fire brigade I had opened the cupboard and found it smoking. My son, an imaginative child, immediately leapt to the phone and before I could stop him had summoned the brigade. I grabbed the phone and begged them not to arrive clanging their fire bell but they seemed quite hurt. They said they had to ring their bell: regulations, apparently. They may have added it was more than their job was worth not to but by this time my grip on reality was loosening and I replaced the phone with a nervous whinny. When the brigade arrived it was like a visitation from Westminster cathedral. So loud was the bell, so enthusiastic the fireman's tolling, that people a mile away rushed to the windows to see what was going on.

I told the leading firemen I thought it was a fuse in the door lock which triggered the light. He looked at me in a marked manner and said, “Please don't tell us how to do our job”, and pushed me brusquely aside.

They did their job by climbing into the eaves, inadvertently putting a foot through the ceiling in the process, and entered the drinks cupboard from above, wielding axes so enthusiastically that several bottles of spirits were damaged beyond repair. After an interval the chief fireman approached me, still glaring in an enhanced marked manner. “It was only a fuse in the switch mechanism,” he said. “An unnecessary call out and by rights I should be charging you for it.”

Some years later on Anglesey, my mother had come to spend Christmas with us. My mother held the course and distance record for immovability. Settled into a fireside armchair, she only got up to go to bed or to the lavatory. She didn't even move from her chair when the chimney caught fire. She sat like Patience on a Monument when the fire brigade arrived and they had virtually to climb over her to get at the blaze. She neither stirred nor spoke until the blaze was quelled, when she said: “Have you been offered something to drink?”

I have to tell you that a bottle of brandy goes nowhere among eight Anglesey firemen. I was relieved when, a little unsteadily, they left. Only for the chief firemen to return and say how he was sorry to bother me but the driver was upset because he was the only one who hadn't had a drink. Clearly the rest of the team believed in solidarity. They all came back with him and another bottle of Remy Martin bit the dust in their throats.

Mind you, our Chester postman was much worse. I joined a record club that sent out a Shakespeare play on a long player every month. It proved quite beyond the postman, who folded it double to get it through the letter box. I rang to complain and the girl on the other end said: “Are you sure it's unplayable?” I said not if you had a crescent-shaped turntable and didn't mind Lady Macbeth going mad in Act One. The claim was allowed and a man arrived with a cheque and a warning: “If you accept this cheque you must never play the record.”


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