Firemen quite understandably get a lot of good press, what with saving lives by rescuing people from burning buildings, their great capacity to remain taciturn in the face of adversity and bad pay, pumping gallons of water whilst man-handling all kinds of modern technical equipment, and the admirable practice of retrieving the cat/dog/horse from the top of the tree/bottom of the well/wrong bedroom.
But it’s not just the rippling muscles and the courage in adversity that causes us to find them so heroic and attractive. For every hero there is an anti-hero; for every Clarisse there is a Hannibal; and it is the shady figure of the arsonist, whose flickering light throws the fireman’s darkest shadows, which gives us to this day our modern figure of comforting authority.
Now, this is not some kind of apology for fraudsters and murderers, but the fireman’s lot would be more humdrum if the kinds of problems he encountered were just dumb, by which I mean, the mundane occurrence of the conflagration of the toaster. That kind of randomly chaotic event seems comprehensible to us, on whatever scale it happens, whether it be the end of the match flying off and burning a small hole in an expensive item of clothing, or a meteorite colliding with the earth. Despite the fact that we cannot actually explain them, our minds seem to accept them. “Oh dear, there’s a hole in my best frock” – “Oh well, that’s the end of life on earth as we know it.”
However, the concept of some malign intelligence with evil purpose actually weakening a matchstick in every box fills us with dread and a terrible sense of threat, and the idea that the meteorite that is coming our way was thrown at us like a cricket ball from a planetary system several universes away gives us nightmares, even though the outcome is exactly the same.
The reason for this of course is that evil is a human attribute. Though we know there is a gulf between us, we consider the arsonist as one of us, and we comprehend that we could potentially be the arsonist ourselves “gone bad”.
Being consciously aware of this tendency is extremely difficult for most people, as we find the concept of firemen arsonists or murdering nurses almost impossible to digest, or to forgive. But, in our secret hearts, we identify as much with the villain as the hero, and it is this which causes us to be so scared. This is a useful piece of knowledge for novelists, authors, screenwriters, detectives, judges, politicians, parents and comedians to have, but it’s also a mindful position to occupy as we aspire and seek to emulate anyone’s heroics.
Now, pass me the hose would you, I’m going to put the cat out.