Lady in flames
The memoir of Britain’s first female firefighter is honest, uplifting, exciting and pulses with the music of the 1980s – ‘Baby’s on Fire’, indeed
The first emergency situation Josephine “Jo” Reynolds found herself dealing with happened while she was still being trained as a firefighter – in fact, as Britain’s first woman firefighter.
A fellow recruit was killed in a highway accident while they were all making their way home in different vehicles. It shook her to the core, but, as happens time and again in Reynolds’ engaging memoir, she had to tough it out and move on.
There were other lives in danger, other fellow citizens to save. Her skills would be called upon many times over the next five years.
Reynolds – who later spent time in our part of the world writing about humanitarian issues in Myanmar and elsewhere – has produced a gem of an autobiography with “Fire Woman”.
The catchy title turns heads, but so does the fact that Britain, like most places in the world, had only “firemen” at the time. And, to this day, only 5 per cent of its firefighters are women. One of Reynolds’ aims here is to encourage more young women to sign up.
It’s not easy, she’s the first to admit. Her 15-month training period, which takes up most of the book’s first half, was physically grinding and soul-crushing, stretching the applicants’ capabilities to the stomach-churning breaking point. Knowing that public safety would be in the hands of these youngsters, the Fire Service instructors were often deliberately cruel in testing them. Dozens of recruits fell by the wayside in the struggle to make the very small final cut.
When severely challenged, however, the human spirit can project surprising force and, on overcoming an obstacle, will rebound twice as strong. This is what gives “Fire Woman” its remarkable dynamism.
It is lively, provocative, frequently charming and often exciting, and, at risk of sounding classist, the writing is certainly far better – more thoughtful and moving – than might be expected of someone in this fundamentally brawny, gutsy profession.
The story could simplistically be characterised as “goth girl makes good”. Reynolds was a tomboy from rural Wales who, once she became old enough and bold enough, sometime in the very young’80s, started making regular forays into London for punk shows.
The music of the times pulses through the book, and she’s cleverly given each chapter the pertinent title of well-known pop or rock song.
“Sweet Dreams are Made of This” doesn't get to the Eurythmics tune right away. It begins with Reynolds moving into a 16th-century stone cottage full of stoners, a rock band in the making, existing in “a cumulonimbus-sized cloud of spliff smoke”. She livens up her drab room with posters of Che Guevara and the Sex Pistols and joins the rest in a woodland hunt for magic mushrooms.
(Less generous readers might by alarmed at drugs and alcohol making regular appearances in the book, but it would be churlish, surely, to deny courageous first responders their off-duty recreation, given the horrors and other difficulties they cope with every day.)
In a flash (pun intended), Reynolds is leading a squad of fellow firefighter wannabes through a severe test of their skills, battling to bring under control a deliberately set but still vicious oil-tank fire.
Willing herself to keep the bucking hose trained on its target, she discovers the surge of unexpected strength that adrenaline brings and, elated, starts singing aloud, then and there, the song of the chapter’s title.
Successful in the assignment, “I felt like Queen of the Universe!” she thrills. “It was only when I looked down at myself – filthy, wet, muddy and stinking of burning oil – I realised that maybe I didn’t look like it.”
“Every Breath You Take” by the Police is the apt choice for the chapter in which the recruits learn to shoulder heavy oxygen apparatus as they’re thrust into life-strangling, smoke-blinded conditions described with suitably suffocating prose. The real-life situation that soon follows is genuinely terrifying.
Once finished with training and into her big rubber boots as a full-fledged fire-woman (she got a man’s uniform, of course, since there were none for women), Reynolds joined the crew at Thetford in Norfolk. The novelty in her achievement made her a celebrity. Chris Tarrant had her on his morning BBC TV show and made the mistake of asking if she was strong enough for the job. She hoisted him over her shoulders and carried him out of the studio.
Thetford turned out to be a busy posting. The AC/DC track “Highway to Hell” is the soundtrack for shivering recollections about a stretch of road infamous for its fatal accidents. Reynolds and her colleagues also dealt with forest fires, unexploded ordnance, a potentially toxic spill, suicides in the gloomy surrounding woods and, on one occasion, a monkey loose from the zoo.
She got on well with most of her co-workers. Reynolds brings a hard-headed feminism to her assessment of situations like hers, of women operating in a man’s world, but more often she advocates independence, integrity and toughness. Quitters, of either gender, need not apply.
At first lonely in Thetford, she eventually finds friends, then romance, and then heartbreak. The book holds more than one tragic personal loss.
But it ends with a wonderful surprise, involving a character who, when first introduced, looks like he’ll be nothing but trouble. Jo Reynolds kept encountering surprises like this – defeat turning into triumph – and the story she shares is all the more uplifting because it’s true, true and honest.
By Josephine Reynolds
Published by Michael O’Mara Books, 2017
Available at Amazon.com, Bt426