The high price of comradeship

I'm in danger of missing the deadline for this column, but I've got a good excuse: it's been delayed by a fire. Not, admittedly, a fire in my flat or,
in fact, anywhere near me. It's about ten minutes down the road, where smoke is belching out of one of those shops that sell discounted knick-knacks for a pound. I was alerted to the situation when I left the house to buy milk and heard someone on the phone, yelling: "Big fire! Big fire by the Post Office!"

Naturally, I was anxious to do my bit, so I went and joined the crowds gawping at the flashing lights. I stood there for about half an hour, saying all the right things ("It must have been an electrical fault" and "It looks like they've got it under control").

I don't want to be called a hero for all this. I just did what anyone would have done in the circumstances.

It was noticeable that the burning building brought strangers together. People who would normally have avoided eye contact were falling over each other to express the hope that nobody was hurt, and suggesting it's "a good job it's been so wet recently", as if in summertime the modest-sized blaze might have rampaged like an Australian bushfire all the way to Westminster and swallowed up Big Ben.

I think it was the sight of the fire brigade - everyone's favourite emergency force - that got us all as undeniably, if sheepishly, excited as we were. In the books we read at school about the different jobs that adults did, firemen popped up everywhere to hose down skyscrapers, toss cats out of windows and sprint down crumbling staircases to catch them outside. The sight of genuine "firefighting" taking place - the men leaping out of the vehicle, the hoses being unfurled - was strangely exhilarating. It was almost enough to make you wish you had a proper, heroic job, rather than sitting at a desk all day . . . at least, until you reminded yourself that heroism involved breathing in toxic fumes and enduring flesh-melting temperatures, and all in all you were better off dealing with more tractable emergencies, like the unusually slow running of Facebook today.

It has been well documented that communities are brought together by crises, but most disasters seem a high price to pay for a bit of comradeship. Even what proved to be a relatively harmless fire is a lot of effort just to get people chatting.

Still, it might be worth this government, or future ones, experimenting with a few "controlled disasters" to raise morale among the populace. Perhaps every Monday they could arrange a bank robbery on a high street, or actors could stage an alien invasion, or a building we no longer need could be blown up suddenly . And, on that note, I'd better get back to the scene of the emergency. I've just had a text to say that a new fire engine's turned up.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Boy George

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.