My Fire—and My Press
• By GILES PLAYFAIR
REcENTLY, I suffered a minor calamity. I have a five-year-old son and a two-year- old daughter who are both persistent and noisy early risers. My son, moreover, unwarned by my attempts to impress him with Harriet's .fate, enjoys striking matches. On this particular morn- ing, to judge from his subsequent tearful protes- tations of innocence, he must have dropped a lighted match on an upholstered armchair in his playroom. But he can rarely be persuaded to stay in his playroom for long, and he was cer- tainly out of it, leaving the door wide open, before the chair caught fire. By the time my wife found it burning, and summoned me, the flames were too fierce to be quelled by the kitchen kettle. For prudence sake, we collected the children, and moved outside. I also collected some especial valuables.
I should guess it took the firemen half an hour at the most to deal with the fire; and their job would have been simpler, but for a faulty tele- phone line that had caused us some delay in making intelligible contact with '999.' I was sur- prised when a reporter from one of the evening papers rang up shortly after the firemen had departed. I had not realised that a fire was neces- sarily a rare or big enough human disaster to be 'news.' And it seemed to me that, as fires went, mine could hardly have been tamer. But then I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that it is not so much what has happened that interests the press as what the reading public can reason- ably be expected to believe has happened.
Now I should doubt the infallibility of the dictum that it is never news when a dog bites a man, though always news when a man bites a dog. Something must surely depend upon what dog and what man and what sort of bite. For example, if Lassie nipped Sir Winston Churchill, that, I presume, would make a bigger story than if I savaged my next-door neighbour's spaniel.
But I can see that a dog bite, which doesn't ordinarily amount to much of an event in itself, is rarely suited to be blown up into anything more than it is. A report under the heading, 'AUTHOR MAULED BY PET WOLFHOUND,' Would, I take it, be considered unreliable, if the author in question was known by his friends and rela- tions to possess not a wolfhound, but a pekinese; or if all he had to show for his injuries was a small bandage round his little finger.
A fire is different. The breathtaking and in a sense heartrending accounts of my fire that duly appeared on the front pages of the evening-paper lunch editions, under the headings of 'AUTHOR'S CHILDREN SAVED IN BLAZE' and 'CHILDREN OF AUTHOR IN BLAZE DRAMA,' were, it must be con- fessed, largely inaccurate. To my wife and me it was as much 'news' as to anyone else that our children had been found 'shut' in a 'blazing, smoke-filled roam,' that we had been awakened by 'their cries,' and so on. But we alone had reason to question the veracity of these state- ments. And it would have been ridiculous, not to say ungrateful, of us to complain about them.
Still, there has been the consequent embar- rassment of responding suitably to expressions of sympathy. These are still coming in; the latest from an American friend, to whom someone sent a cutting about our 'ghastly housewarming,' as he pertinently puts it. 'What a thankfully narrow escape in the big sense,' he writes. 'You must still be quaking at the mere thought of it.'
How does one reply to letters of this sort? If one accepts the writer's sympathy as deserved —even indirectly, with a brave figurative shrug of the shoulders and just a murmur about 'news- paper stuff'—one knows oneself for a fraud; the kind of thief who keeps what he finds. On the other hand, to be strictly honest is to be deflating. One runs the risk of making one's well- wishers feel foolish and gullible.
I suppose that the only solution is to persuade oneself that what the newspapers say happened must have happened; and 1 suspect that this is what people similarly placed often succeed in doing. They have their fantasies created for them.
In my case, however, I'm still nding it hard to suspend disbelief in my press-written drama, not because of its unlikelihood, but because of the inglorious role I am personally depicted as having played in it. It was my wife who 'carried the children to safety'; all I did was to 'telephone the fire brigade.' Indeed, that headline 'AUTHOR'S CHILDREN SAVED IN BLAZE,' which by its very ambiguity left me some slight claim to the hero's role, was changed in later editions to 'AUTHOR'S WIFE SAVES CHILDREN.'
True, there was compensation of a sort next morning, when a daily paper decided to keep the story alive by altering and abridging it at the same time. In this new and shortened drama I found myself elevated from walk-on to buffoon. I had 'fought' my way into the blazing room needlessly; the children weren't there; my wife had found them playing in the garden.
I prefer that story to the other, of course. Unfortunately, though, none of my friends saw it. And since my wife has conveniently lost the only relevant cutting, its chances of being ac- cepted, even within the family circle, as the definitive version seem remote.