Tuesday, May 16, 2017

About Firemen

I am a man of simple pleasures. And one of these pleasures is to receive emails from AbeBooks informing me that somewhere in the world they have found a book I have been looking for.

I have a few pending requests. I like that the website keeps track of how long I (or rather, they) have been looking for each book. This one was nearly six years coming. I can now ‘delete my want’.

About Firemen is a little book about, well, firemen. Gendered profession as there ever was one, but at the time when the book was written – the mid 1930s – it was literally true. D. Richardson (I have never been able to establish what the D stands for) wrote about them in the same way they wrote about dustmen, postmen and policemen, as part of the Introduction to Citizenship series overseen by the Froebel Education Institute and published by Ginn and Company Ltd, 7 Queen Square, London. Richardson wrote the quartet of books in the belief that
children, even quite young children, can and should make contact with some of the essential social services in the community.
The books were written with the school in mind, and link to one of the my favourite recurring topics: the historical representation of work, especially for pedagogical purposes. However, Richardson’s choice of four at the time all-male professions suggests that for them talking about labour ultimately meant upholding a specific ideal of society: namely, one that is orderly (policemen), clean (dustmen), connected (postmen), and safe (firemen). These for the author are the underpinnings not just of any society, but more specifically of democratic ones, in those days of ‘social, political and international unrest’.

Consider About Firemen, then, like the other little books in the series, a treatise on life during a sort of permanent peacetime home front, while fascism raged abroad.

Richardson’s firemen are well-trained, diligent, brave and strong. They wait at the station for the next alarm, either maintaining their equipment or resting or sleeping in their bunks, unless they are first in line to respond to a call. Outside the station is London, with its networks of fire alarms and hydrants, and its symbols for the initiated.

Enamelled tags attached to buildings whether a hydrant (H) or double hydrant (HD) is situated directly underneath (diamond-shaped tag) or on the opposite side of the road (oval shaped-tag), while special boxes allow people to send an alarm signal to the station or firemen to communicate that the situation is under control and no more appliances are needed at the scene.

Other ways to contact the service include special button in police boxes, or personal communication devices that have started to appear in the wealthiest homes.

Back at central station, the commanders track in real time the deployment of appliances on a map of the city.

While other officers operate the switchboard and map out the calls.

Overseen by a military chain of command, this is a model of the city as an organism, a body to be disciplined and protected. The job of the fireman, which in reality must require a great deal of resourcefulness and creativity, is reduced therefore to a series of component functions, or conditioned, automatic responses, to be carried out with efficiency and precision. A strange lesson to teach in the pursuit of civics education, perhaps, if the ulterior motive is say things about the nature of citizenship in a free society.

I enjoy these books. They have a quaintness about it, such as when they admonish against leaving candles on the Christmas tree unattended. I’m old enough to remember Christmas decorations requiring actual flames.

I enjoy finding out in the 1930s in Britain fire brigade call-outs were free unless it was for a flue fire, in which case you were regarded as being neglectful and had to pay.

I enjoy reading about the transition from the classic brass helmets – which as well as being very heavy had become an electrocution hazard since the introduction of electricity to the modern home – to new ones made of cork and rubber.

But mostly I like them for these books for the usual reason: that fewer attempts are made nowadays to teach people about work, or about how things are made and by whom, and it’s a topic I’ll never cease to find interesting, just as I did when I was the age of D. Richardson’s intended reader.

Now, I’m still missing About Policemen and affiliated second-hand booksellers are aware but still, if you should come across it please let me know.

D. Richardson. About Firemen. London: Ginn and Company, 193?