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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes


The following tale is an excerpt from my book ‘Nine Weeks at Hammersmith’. The scene, on the picket line outside Hammersmith fire station in the busy Shepherds Bush road London, during the fire service strike in the year 1977.

We were now into the month of December, only so many striking days left to Christmas, according to the wags. The picket had now taken up a position of semi-permanence in the Shepherds Bush Road. I think the local inhabitants enjoyed their respite, warming at the brazier (the 40 gallon oil drum) as they went about their daily business. The station yard was half full of wood, the sign saying ‘Wood Wanted’ had long been taken down. The reaction to this sign had been most unexpected; tipper lorries had reversed back through the appliance room to discharge vast quantities of the stuff, so much so that we had problems getting our motor cars into the yard.

In my mind, the life and centre of the picket was always the brazier. So much occurred around it, so much humour was invoked by it. At Hammersmith Fire Station we had discovered a source of new fuel for the brazier. A local, sympathetic coal merchant had a large stack of best Welsh nuts (a type of coal) that had been contaminated with diesel oil, thus rendering it un-saleable. The coal was offered to us free of charge, all we had to do was collect it ourselves. Unknown to us at the time, a recipe for super heat was best Welsh nuts soaked in diesel. When the brazier was well stoked up with this stuff, it would glow white-hot. On a windy day it seemed like we had our own private nuclear reactor, it got so hot on occasions, that it spalled the stonework off the front of the fire station. Any person standing closer than three feet would suffer their clothing being singed. It caused minor problems with the police because members of the public warming themselves had to stand so far back that they obstructed the pavement.

There was a down side to the warmth and comfort the brazier emitted. As time went on, itinerants, vagrants, vagabonds, and winos and the like became accustomed to its comforts and tended to hog the best spots around it. Some of them seemed to think that a measly five pence coin thrown into the strike bucket entitled them to a prime spot for at least an hour. We discovered that one of the requirements for being a vagrant vagabond etc. must be a thick skin because no amount of caustic or sarcastic remarks would make them move on.

One cold, rainy, December night, a fireman named Earl thought he had a solution to the problem of these thick-skinned itinerants. On this particular night, one tenacious individual had been hogging the best spot for a considerable time. Not only was he obnoxious but as the fire warmed the many layers of his clothing he became extremely malodorous as well, which aggravated the problem all the more. Earl, who was not the most patient of firemen, was having to get wet in order to get warm because he was forced to stand out in the rain. This smelly gentleman did indeed have a thick skin, as not only did he resist all sarcastic comments and remarks but he even ignored Earl’s direct, abrupt, request that he “Piss off and let somebody else see the fire for a change.
” When the idea first came to Earl, there was no jubilant cry of Eureka (!), just a low, hissing mutter of “I’ll soon shift the bastard.” He did a swift about turn and stalked off into the gloom of the unlighted appliance room, only to re-emerge from the dark some minutes later with a satanic, sinister grin on his face and clutching in his hand a pint beer glass filled with a blue liquid. Standing back from the light of the brazier, he indicated by signs that what he held in his hand was a pint of paraffin obtained from the station oil store, and that he intended to liven up the brazier fire a bit when the malodorous gent wasn’t looking.

Now, whatever his detractors may say about Earl (and there were many!) he was a good, practical, brave fireman. Unfortunately, his knowledge didn’t extend to much with regard to the scientific side of fire fighting. For example, he obviously did not appreciate the effect that a pint of neat hydrocarbon would have when applied to the white-hot coals of the brazier. The movement by some of the other firemen away from the brazier indicated that they certainly did!

The malodorous man blithely basked in the warmth from the brazier. With it being such a cold, wet night, the brazier had been well stoked up. The sides of the oil drum glowed white with the heat. The man had just turned around to toast his back, when Earl applied hydrocarbon to the white-hot coals. The effect was quite spectacular, far more spectacular than Earl could ever have hoped for. In fact, it was so spectacular that Earl himself crashed into the fire engine behind him as he leapt backwards to avoid the flames. For one brief moment it was like looking up the tail pipe of a jet engine, not to be recommended from a close distance. Firemen scattered this away and that, nothing like this had been seen since the thirteenth of November this year! Fortunately for all concerned, the flames roared directly upwards, reaching a height of about twenty feet. This may not sound excessive to some seasoned firemen but rest assured it is quite exciting when it happens in the middle of Hammersmith Broadway and you are standing only feet away from it! There were only two options: to be singed by the flames or run down by a number eleven London bus whilst trying desperately to avoid them!

Calm and order was finally restored and an only slightly downcast Earl was communally admonished. He agreed that he would never pull that particular stunt again. Only now was it realised that nobody had noticed what effect it had had on the malodorous man, such had been the urge for self-preservation. Earl’s little wheeze had obviously worked because the man was not there any more (and subsequently never ever came back again). For a period of around twenty to thirty minutes, we were all rather nervous and on edge. However, as no policeman came along to accuse us of the heinous crime of igniting itinerants, we relaxed somewhat and life around the brazier carried on as abnormal as ever.

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