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A21 Hollywood


When I transferred back from the Berkshire fire brigade to the London fire brigade again in the year 1969, I spent five weeks back at Southwark training school, being re-programmed again, back into the ways of the big city firemen, after my brief sojourn out in the shires. Now good fortune smiled upon me in the form of a good posting to station. About the time that I transferred back to London, they had opened a brand new fire station at Paddington in West London. They were seeking experienced firemen with additional qualifications to fill the vacancies there. There was I in training school awaiting a posting with nine years served, breathing apparatus, motor driving, and turntable ladder operator qualifications, although I did not know it at the time, it was A21 Paddington here I come. Travel wise this posting was an almost unbelievable bit of luck; my home in Berkshire was an eight-minute walk from the local railway station, on the Western region. Paddington fire station is also a eight-minute walk away from Paddington railway station, also on the Western region. This meant I could travel from home to work, door to door in one hour, even a lot of the firemen living in London would have at least this travel time to work I was on the red watch at Paddington for just over a year, this year was a very eventful year in my career incurring feats of daring do, many rescues and large hotel fires etc, all written about in previous books. It was around this period of time that Paddington having had many high profile hotel fires and rescues were receiving a great deal of press attention. Some of the surrounding stations felt that they were somewhat in the shadow of Paddington, and gave it the derisory intended nickname of A21 Hollywood, which the Paddington firemen then perversely adopted themselves, as a badge of honour.

Then in around the middle of 1970 I was promoted to the rank of leading fireman and posted away to Euston fire station.

Euston also is/was also a very busy inner London fire station, with an interesting and varied fire ground, with pump escape, pump, and turntable ladders stationed there. Then subsequently and most unusually within just months of being posted there as a brand new leading fireman the following happened. The station officer was due to go off on a two months residential course at the fire college at Moreton in the Marsh, the sub officer the next rank down from him, was already out posted in the rank of temporary station officer at another station. The other leading fireman on the watch far senior in rank than me, was I presumed deemed not a suitable royal ‘A’ Division type (he having recently transferred in to Euston from one of the outer ex Middlesex stations}. So it came about, that recently promoted leading fireman Wilson, became elevated to being Temporary Sub O Wilson, and in charge of Euston fire station white watch for two months. During these two months I picked up some interesting fires and handled them well. On one fire in which Euston was the first machine in attendance, I made pumps eight, and it went up to be a fifteen-pump fire. I knew this fire to be worth fifteen pumps from the outset, but there is an old wise mans axiom in the brigade, always leave a bit of room for the Guvnor, of whatever rank, to get his name on a make up message. This was in fact a very difficult fire, being a large timber yard, surrounded on all sides by residential properties, and then a quite a large number of Propane cylinders banging off, and the metal cylinder jackets whizzing around the fire ground, like rocket projectiles.

Occasionally at Euston one particular very senior, and old school Divisional Officer would look in at the station, no doubt to check up on me, then watch me conduct drills etc. This run of good fortune at Euston, and I hesitate to say it, but good management skills, was to be later my undoing. I did not know it at the time, but I was being evaluated for consideration in being head hunted back to Paddington. The fateful day came when our station officer now back from his course was away on a days leave, and I was again in charge of the station. The same Divisional Officer came onto the station, drew me aside to the far end of the appliance room, and after a bit of beating around the bush for a while, asked the main question, “how would I feel about being posted back to Paddington”. This question I must admit took me totally unawares, but I knew how the system worked, if they wanted my back at Paddington, that’s were I would be going. I think I gave almost the perfect answer to the question saying “Well sir, I am not going to volunteer to go to Paddington, because I get on great here at Euston with station officer Kington and the white watch, but if you post me back I will not complain to loudly”. So no doubt that very diplomatic answer, of professed loyalty to my present fire station Guvnor and watch, sealed my fate, I was on my bike again.

I was in fact very sad to be leaving Euston, firstly because it was a very good and happy watch on a very busy fire station. The station officer Mr Kington like many old style station officers, who had served many years in that rank was considered a bit of a reprobate, and somewhat eccentric, but I got on famously with him. Another very good reason that I have fond memories of Euston, is for me it was the first step up the ladder of promotion. The leading fireman on watch is between the devil and the deep blue sea, he is not quite one of the lads anymore, he is office staff, yet he is one of the lads, both in daily station routines and off duty social life. Then I had two months in the rank of temporary sub officer in charge of the watch and station, then with luck, tactfulness, and some skills in leadership, I carried that off well, so Euston had been a very good and rewarding posting for me.

Like many other government and commercial employers, the London fire brigade keeps for each individual employee a personnel record form. In my day it was the form 126, a buff coloured foolscap sized form, on a kind of thin cardboard, it was started on your first day at training school, and followed you, or as the tale evolves proceeded you, from station to station throughout your service. On the front of this form were recorded such information as date of joining the brigade, next of kin, national insurance number, and home address and suchlike. Then would be the stations you were posted to, and date of posting. Then your brigade qualifications, such as breathing apparatus wearer, motor driver, turntables ladder operator, and various brigade courses etc you had attended. Then in the middle of the right hand section of the form was the heading “ under section 16 was the heading “Special Qualifications, Diplomas, Awards, etc” In most cases this section would be blank. On my form 126, this section had two entries, in modesty I will merely say they had something to do with meritous actions at fires. So for example, on my posting to Euston, before my arrival, they would have already received my form 126. and duly noted the contents. They would have noted length of service, which stations I had been at (all busy inner London “A” division stations) then the two entries under section 16. Now I know how their minds work, what have we got here they are thinking, a glory hunter, or a really good fireman, as in all occupations, the jungle drums would beat and the telephone lines would hum. So before I even walked through the doors at Euston with my kit bag on my shoulder they would have had a fairly good idea what to expect.

So there I was on my way back to Padder’s, A21 Hollywood, the battleship, the flagship, all terms for Paddington fire station and “A” divisional headquarters. The only plus point was, that as I was bidding them farewell at Euston, I overheard Mr Kington telling the station officer on the oncoming watch “as soon as I get a decent leading fireman on the watch, they go and post the bugger away”.

To give the senior officers of the “A” division their due, they were trying their utmost to make this brand new fire station and divisional headquarters, a happy and proficient ship. They could have just simply posted in all the necessary firemen with the skill levels required, but they would finish up with a watch filled with skilled miserable, disgruntled firemen, aggrieved at being posted away from their previous settled and happy postings. Whilst it was easier to simply post in the younger firemen, the senior firemen with the required qualifications motor driver, turntable ladder operator, would be coerced, or persuaded to volunteer for the posting, with perhaps the carrot of future promotion dangled before them. I am not quite sure whether I was coerced or volunteered, or it could have been that the simple eight-minute walk to Paddington railway station and home, that swung it for me.

The watches plus divisional staff, car drivers etc, at Paddington can be as many as thirty or forty men. All these required to man the many fire engines etc stationed there, as follows. Pump Escape, Pump, Turntable Ladders, Emergency Tender, Breathing Apparatus Control Unit, GP general-purpose vehicle (lorry) three staff cars, so at times it could be a pretty crowded ship. I had been posted to the white watch at Paddington, to complete the office staff (officers) of four. These being Station officer White, posted in from an ex Middlesex station, Des Patten, a senior and venerable Sub officer, Neil Wallington and myself making up the two Leading firemen on the watch. Whilst I do not remember any fires or incidents of great note during this time, it subsequently turned out that a most unusual coincidence occurred. Three future fire service published authors, were serving at Paddington fire station at the same time. Arthur Nichols who was the senior Divisional Officer in the “A” division, went on to write and have published his book, I think called “Go to Blazes”. Neil Wallington on the same watch as myself, went on to eventually become the Chief Officer in a County brigade, and had many fire brigade related books published. Then of course myself, currently persevering with what I hope will be my fifth published book.

The social life at Paddington was in the main going down the pub after the first day duty, and having a few beers. There were a few public houses within walking distance of the fire station, the nearest one with was alongside the grand union canal at the rear of the station, this one was a bit posh and the beer there considered to be a bit expensive. We eventually settled into a pub some three or four hundred yards away down the Harrow road, from memory I think called the Royal Oak. This was one of the big old-fashioned London pubs, wherein it could accommodate a hundred or so punters quite comfortably. All pubs and hostelries have their own routines, in that the landlord of the Royal Oak would expect that around six thirty in the evening on weekdays, anything from a half dozen to a dozen firemen would arrive, and start spending money. Then after a few weeks or so passing bye, the firemen would be mixing and socializing with the rest of the six thirty evening imbibers, this being the way of pub life in England.
Well at this particular pub something quite interesting used to happen from around seven o’clock onwards in the evening, certain exotic creatures would appear in the bars. These exotic creatures would take the form of glamorous, exquisitely dressed and made up ladies, (well most of them were ladies). Apparently this pub the Royal Oak, was the meeting point for just about every drag queen, TV (transvestite), and strippers, from all over West London. They would meet up here for a few snifters, and gossip before leaving for their nights engagements which could be anywhere in the south of England. Well quite naturally London’s finest (to use an American expression) got on famously with London’s exotic and glamorous, and were soon on first name terms. Now these ladies, and the not so ladies the drag artists had very keen senses of humour, so much so that when one of our younger more naïve firemen, was trying to chat up and date a beautiful transvestite, they actually encouraged the liaison. Later in the evening when his mates informed him that he had just pulled a good looking fellow, the poor fireman was at first unconvinced, that the delightful creature he had been chatting to for the last half and hour was a man, and then mortified when it was proved to be true. One old senior fireman then informing him sagely, “always check the back’s of the hands son, if they’ve got hair on the backs of their fingers, it’s definitely a bloke”

Some months later back in my home village in Berkshire, a group of local firemen and friends had hired a mini bus to go to a stag do at the nearby Sonning rugby club, We had arrived early and were standing around in the bar drinking. The main entrance doors to the club opened and in came a group of the evenings entertainers, the strippers drag queens etc. As they passed the bar on the way to their dressing rooms, one of the girls said “oh look there’s Dave” then turning to her friends shouted back “look girls Dave’s here” by this time every one in the bar was looking around thinking who is this Dave bloke, is he famous or something. Then as they all trooped past the bar, I of course had to acknowledge their greetings, it seemed that I knew virtually every one of them from the Royal Oak pub. My friends were a bit taken aback by all this, they knew I worked in London, but were a bit surprised by the exotic and erotic company I apparently kept there, me being a married man and upstanding member of the community in my village. They were not I think, totally convinced with my glib explanation, that I met them all down the local pub. Subsequently over the coming weeks and living in a small village environment the tale of me knowing all the strippers and drag queens became somewhat exaggerated out of all proportion. It took quite a bit of explaining to satisfy my wife, that I really had just met them all just socially down the pub, and not in some other nefarious activities.

I had been on the white watch Paddington for around seven months, when the most unexpected happening occurred, for some unexplained and diverse reason they decided to promote me once again. I had only been leading fireman Wilson in total for around a year, and just getting used to it, when I was now to become Sub Officer Wilson. When I first found out about the promotion, reading it in BRO.s Brigade Routine Orders, I was a bit concerned about my future posting, because I was quite fond of Paddington.

Then I got the most wonderful news, my new posting was to be to “A” divisional headquarters on day duties. This merely entailed moving all my kit from the locker room on the second floor of Paddington, and putting it in a locker in the ground floor annex, where “A” divisional headquarters was situated.
I had spent the greater part of my working life on shift duties, even my jobs prior to the fire brigade involved shift duties, so I was initially not quite sure if I would like day duties, but took I subsequently took to it like a duck to water! In those far off days, firemen still worked a 56-hour week, these hours were deemed excessive for day duty office workers, which in effect I would be. The suitable hours for day workers were deemed to be around 40 hours a week. So if we worked from nine in the morning till six at night to keep in tandem with the fire stations daily routines, we would be working excessive hours. Working a nine-day fortnight solved this, in effect we worked five days the first week, and four days the second week, I couldn’t believe my luck. Compared to my previous work schedule, the continual grind of 2 days on days, two nights on night duty and two days off, it was like having a part time job.

“A” Divisional staff office was situated in a modern ground floor annex to Paddington fire station; the staff officers comprised one station officer, and three sub officers. One of the sub officers (of which there were three in number) were attached to one of the three rota watches, red white and blue watches, they would alternate depending of which of the three watches was on day duties. The station officer an easy going efficient man, liked a quiet life, and a happy crew, and knew when, and when not, to interfere with a smoothly running ship. That left just two sub officers on permanent days, sub officer Dickie Marr and myself. Dickie Marr was a big imposing man, ex fleet air arm wallah, sporting a flying officer Kite moustache, with out doubt definitely Regimental Sergeant Major material. Dickie was in fact a quite frustrated man; he had joined the brigade sometime after the Second World War, and had held the rank of sub officer for many many years now. Like quite a few of his generation in the brigade, he could not pass the station officers examination, and thus qualify for further promotion. So Dickie a very clever intelligent astute man, and a very good practical fire officer had to watch as lesser mortals, climbed the slippery promotion pole above him, and in theory at least outranked him. The firemen at Paddington had cruelly nicknamed Dickie as DO 4, (Divisional Officer IIII) now the brigade Divisional Officer ranks only went up to grade three, there was no rank of DO 4, but the lads deemed that his manner and behaviour, a bit overbearing etc, qualified him for the rank of DO 4.

Now the firemen whilst not realizing it, had given Dickie a very accurate nickname, intended as derisory, but in fact quite close to true. The current senior officer in the “A” division held the rank of Divisional Officer one, he had recently been posted into the “A” division from an outer London Ex Middlesex division, and it was considered that he was a bit out of his depth fire ground wise. The wags were saying it’s a big jump from haystacks and barns, to Buckingham Palace or the Houses of Parliament well alight. It was soon noted that on any big fires in the division, in which our Divisional Officer was in charge, Sub Officer Marr was in fact taking all the major decisions. In Dickies eye’s this would have been looking after his Guvnor the senior officer, making sure the job (the fire) went sweetly with no cock-ups. To some of the firemen, not realizing fully what Dickie was doing, considered him acting way above his station and too big for his boots, thus DO 4. In effect Dickie was endeavouring to what we all strived to do, and that was to hold up the good reputation of the “A” division in fire fighting matters, bit like the army’s regimental system.

I had not long ago passed the written exam to qualify me for promotion to the rank of station officer, and as a matter of routine attended an interview for promotion to that rank. In my opinion the interview did not go to well, but I did note that they did not actually give me a hard time, in fact I noted quite a genial atmosphere, see you all again next year I thought to myself as I left the room, one does not get further promoting after serving mere weeks in the present rank, which quite suited me, cos I liked my present cushy job a “A” divisional HQ.

Some weeks later I was summoned by the station officer in charge of “A” Div HQ, to an interview in his private office, a most unusual and worrying summons. He started the interview by simply asking, “did I know of a good tailor”. I thought this to be a most unusual question, myself being on fire brigade wages for the last ten years or so, the days of ordering bespoke tailor made suits were long gone. So obviously puzzled I replied, “why would I need to know of a good tailor”. Then his reply in return stunned me “because” he said, “you are going to need one, because you are being promoted to station Officer”. Isn’t it strange, I was actually not quite sure whether to be happy or sad at hearing this news. I had I thought found a superb niche in life, day duties, nine day fortnight, easy travelling, good work companions, good for a couple of years at least I reckoned. and now the bastards were going to promote me away from it. Later once I had digested the news and got used to it, upon reflection, I thought all this rapid promotion, might have had something to do with those entries in my form 126 in the honours and awards section.

That what I thought to be frivolous question at the station officers interview, was in fact quite a serious one, for at that time station officers could nominate their own tailors. He recommended to me to his own tailor, W Childs of Wandsworth High street London, a most superb tailor of military uniforms and suchlike. When I first went there to be measured for my first station officers uniform, I found it was a nondescript single fronted shop, with just one or two bolts of cloth in the window, you even had to ring a doorbell to be admitted. Years later, as long as your measurements had not altered you had simply to ring them up and order your new uniforms, and they fitted perfectly, because they would have retained all your measurements and paper patterns.

So that was it, life moves on into everyone’s life a little rain must fall, the buggers had promoted me, I was now to move somewhere beyond the royal “A” division called Chiswick.

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