I'll Teach You To Burn (IP)
Fire was a dominant theme in my childhood. It was for most kids in the fifties and sixties. It was one of our earliest lessons on the contrariness of life.
My mother insisted that I had flameproof nighties. We had a guard round the sitting room fire and we had a Morphy Richards hairdryer, so I didn’t have to stick my freshly washed head up the chimney of a Sunday night, but my mother was a conscientious woman. Flameproof nighties it was.
‘Hold that,’ my Grandad used to say, when we went to visit. All the grandchildren got this job, when they visited. The day’s child stood before the mantelpiece, dangling a piece of unfolded newspaper in front of the grate, while the newly lit coals smoked and spluttered a bit. The newspaper helped to create a draught up the chimney, so that the fire would ‘catch’. There was an art to this, carefully taught to us by our loving grandparents. The art was, to watch the newspaper getting browner and browner, smelling more and more charred, and judge precisely the last moment before it and you burst into flames. It was at that moment, and not before, that you could be sure the fire had ‘caught’, and snatch the paper away. You got told off if you did it too soon and the fire hadn’t ‘caught’ properly.
My mother was quite happy for me to do this, in my non-flameproof skirt, jumper, socks and knickers, while she chatted to my grandad as he ceremoniously lit his pipe and brushed sparks off the armchair and on to the carpet.
We all knew what to do if someone did burst into flames, because we’d all read exciting stories of heroic kids saving stupid kids from being roasted. You pushed the fiery person down on to the floor, fire side up, and rolled them in the carpet. Or you flung your coat over them. I remember once considering this, after a particularly close shave with the newspaper, and wondering how I would get the carpet out from under the three piece suite and the table or, alternatively, how much damage would be done while I ran and got my coat from the peg in the hall. I contemplated the hearthrug, but it was a half-moon job that would only have covered quite a small child. The only answer seemed to be the heavy undercloth that my gran always kept on the table. I wondered if I should point this out to someone else before my next shift with the paper.
All our domestic arrangements were a conflagration waiting to happen. Too many plugs in one socket. The telly plug left in overnight. Chip pans. Candles on Christmas trees. Fairy lights on Christmas trees. Tinsel on Christmas trees. Angel Hair on Christmas trees. Christmas trees in and of themselves. Hairdryers left on the bed. Smoking in bed. Smoking in armchairs. Sparklers. Electric blankets. And, a few years later, heated rollers. Carmen, bringer of fire and destruction.
We knew all these were real and present dangers because, every so often, there would be an appalling story in the paper, often read upside down while we were ‘catching’ the fire, about an entire family destroyed by one of these hazards. My mother would then make my father check the wiring, chuck water on the ashtrays before he went to bed (‘Don’t empty them into the bin! That’s the worst thing you can do! We’ll all die in our beds!’) and buy new fairy lights for Christmas. No-one gave up smoking, or chips, or thought of using something other than a child to give a bit of oomph to the domestic hearth. We’d never heard of a household smoke alarm. Bri-nylon nighties with a flameproof coating were as good as it got.
I remember watching Top of the Pops when The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown came on hissing ‘Fire! I’ll teach you to burn!’ The Crazy World was basically one bloke in a white sheet, moving around with caution so as not to dislodge the two fiery prongs stuck on his metal hairband. I wondered if his white sheet was flameproof.
My mother was outraged. ‘They shouldn’t show that! It’s disgraceful! Kids all over the country will be setting themselves on fire! Come on, get your shoes on. We’re going over to gran and grandad’s. Oh – run upstairs and fetch my ciggies, will you? They’re on the bedside table.’
Fire. I’ll teach you to burn.