A Fearful Conflagration
The Rope Works fire, my Uncle Hal always said, was like Shaw's description of a General Election in a capitalist society. I was nine years old at the time, it was one o'clock in the morning and I was sleeping fitfully with my head at the bottom of the bed because of toothache when my old Aunt Emma burst in.
'Throw on your vest!' she shouted. 'The Rope Works is on fire!'.
'Where is it?' I asked.
'At the bottom of Stony Bank, you should know that,' she cried.
'I was thinking of my vest,' I said.
'I should hope so,' she said. She had brought me up always to think of my vest. 'But where are your glasses?'
'Where are my cigarette cards?' I responded.
'What's wrong with the lad?' Uncle Hal called from the kitchen, where he was throwing on his bowler hat, because it was Sunday.
'It's just that he's never seen me in my nightie before,' said my old Aunt Emma, throwing on her mackintosh.
The Rope Works! Many a time I had got my elbow jammed in its railings. And now, as we stepped out of the door, it seemed that everybody was hurtling down Stony Bank to see the blaze, the toothache epidemic that had been sweeping Wallsend forgotten.
'This stampede,' Uncle Hal panted, 'is like Shaw's description of a General Election in a capitalist society.'
'This is when you need a bicycle, you see,' my old Aunt Emma reproached him. Uncle Hal had lost his bicycle during the heavy rains of 1930.
'The Fire Brigade!' Uncle Hal shouted. 'What about the Fire Brigade?'
'They've got an engine, Uncle Hal,' I said.
But Uncle Hal had made a detour to the door of P.C. Jack Townsend. Consumed as always with public-spiritedness, he had decided that he must urge the policeman to cycle off to the Fire Station to entreat them to come.
P.C. Townsend said he would have done it, nobody sooner. 'But it's my leg,' he explained.
He was a diffident man, reluctant to get involved in unseemly matters, and would sit in his lodgings in dressing gown and pyjamas rather than apprehend murderers. Notified by his landlady that the Rope Works was ablaze, he had made a token gesture of putting on his uniform, but had missed his trouser leg and fallen quite heavily on his knee.
'It's a nasty night for a fire,' said my old Aunt Emma.
'Would you like a cup of tea?' asked P.C. Townsend's landlady.
'I'll let the doctor see my knee,' said P.C. Townsend.
But Uncle Hal was already binding on the policeman's bicycle clips. When he arrived at the Fire Station, the man at the door said they were all out at the fire. 'I've stayed behind because of toothache,' he confided.
'You must understand,' said Uncle Hal, 'that this bicycle doesn't fit me.' It was a perfectly good machine, but he had always resented that the policeman, as society's lackey, was provided with a free bicycle.
'They're at the Rope Works,' said the man. 'Turn left at Stony Bank.'
'By such bribery, you see,' said Uncle Hal, 'does capitalism ensure its survival.'
'If you see the chief,' said the man, 'will you give him this?'
'Pardon?' said Uncle Hal,
'It's just that he took the wrong helmet,' said the man.
My old Aunt Emma and I had meanwhile drunk our tea and proceeded to the Rope Works. 'See those flames licking up to the sky,' she said.
'I haven't got my glasses,' I said. They were with my cigarette cards in the gas meter cupboard.
Uncle Hal arrived and accosted the Fire Chief. 'Can you not see the lad's got his elbow in the railings?' he said.
'Get your foot out of my bucket!' the Fire Chief shouted.
'It's your foot that's in the bucket!' Uncle Hal shouted back.
'Can I help it,' said the Fire Chief, 'if I've got the wrong helmet?'
The fire lasted five hours and they had to pump the Gut dry to put it out, finding Uncle Hal's bicycle.
Next day, I went down with my stomach, in the gas meter cupboard. 'It serves him right for going out in nothing but a vest,' Dr. Duncan said. He sounded my elbow and my stomach and prescribed syrup of figs and embrocation. 'Not that he'll survive,' he added, speaking sourly because of toothache.
'Embrocation and syrup of figs?' said my old Aunt Emma. 'What if we get them mixed up?'
'That'll save time,' Dr. Duncan acknowledged.
'You should sleep upside down for toothache,' my old Aunt Emma recommended. She had acquired a lot of cures from Granny Tate, who had buried three husbands.
Dr. Duncan warned her against letting me make a habit of running down Stony Bank at one o'clock on a cold morning.
'There was a fire at the Rope Works,' said my old Aunt Emma.
'You can't always count on that,' he said sternly.
'How's Jack?' said my old Aunt Emma.
'Who?' said Dr. Duncan.
'The policeman,' said my old Aunt Emma. 'You should put him in a cold bath with Epsom salts.'
Dr. Duncan thanked her and said he had his own ways of losing patients.
Herbert Mangle, the Wallsend poet, felt constrained to celebrate the occasion in rhyme, but his lyric, though vivid, was necessarily vicarious, as he had unaccountably got locked in the off-licence with Mrs Proudfoot, the proprietress :
O fearful conflagration!
O awesome dazzling sight!
The Rope Works flames emblazoned
The Wallsend sky that night:
A scene that quite eluded
This prisoner of lust -
Still clasped long after daybreak
To Mrs Proudfoot's bust.
Uncle Hal said the fire had been like Shaw's description of a General Election in a capitalist society.
'You keep saying that,' said my old Aunt Emma.
'In Shaw's allegory, mind you,' said Uncle Hal, 'it was a runaway cow they were pursuing.'
'There's a lot of this toothache about,' said my old Aunt Emma. 'Still, you got your bicycle back, apart from the wheels.'
'They were enslaved by the capitalist system, you see!' cried Uncle Hal,
'He freed the bairn's elbow,' said my old Aunt Emma, 'in spite of his bucket.'
Three weeks later, Uncle Hal burst in on me as I slept fitfully on my stomach. 'It's the General Election!' he shouted. 'The result's declared!'
I threw on my glasses to dash out to follow the cow, but he only wanted to tell me that the capitalists had survived again.
On the whole, I would have preferred a fire.