The Thing Is with Steve Canavan - February 16, 2017

Fire at North Pier Blackpool  19/06/1938.
Firemen tackle the blaze
historical
Published 20/06/38
Fire at North Pier Blackpool 19/06/1938. Firemen tackle the blaze historical Published 20/06/38
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Impending emergency led to 999 discovery

Mrs Canavan is due to give birth any time now and, as a result, I am not allowed out of the house on the off-chance she goes into labour.

“Where are you going?” she asks, if she so much as senses me reaching for my jacket.

‘To buy some milk from the shop around the corner cherub face,’ I reply, tenderly.

“You can’t go,” she responds, with a frown, “what if, you know, it happens.”

Thus, because of this, I am forced to spend about 95 per cent of my life indoors. Indeed I feel very much like I’m being held hostage in a war-torn country, though with Marks and Spencer’s fresh orange juice in the fridge and a TV to watch Match of the Day on.

The sheer boredom of spending more time in the house has led me to start reading a book called ‘The History of the 999 Call’. Now I grant you, as titles go it isn’t the sexiest, but it was either that or a trashy novel Mrs Canavan recently purchased about - according to the blurb on the back - Derek and Pamela, a middle-aged couple from Leamington Spa who fall in love but then Derek has a serious car accident, loses his memory, and can’t remember his lover’s name. Out of curiosity, I skipped to the final page and read the last line. It said: “As a starling chirped on a limp telephone wire overhead, Derek opened his eyes, weakly smiled, and whispered ‘Pamela, I love you and always will’.”

Which is why I opted for the 999 book and I must say I’m glad I did for it is surprisingly interesting.

As I have what’s known as a life, I had previously not stopped to ponder the 999 service, how it began, and just how marvellous it is that every single one of us, if we’re in some sort of pickle, can dial an easy-to-remember number and get help straight away.

I also had no idea that - and this made me feel strangely proud - Great Britain was the first country in the entire world to introduce an emergency call telephone service.

How wonderful is that?

It started in 1935 following a fire in London - Wimpole Street to be exact - in which five women were killed.

A neighbour spotted the smoke and phoned the fire brigade but was so enraged, as the flames grew fiercer, at being held in a queue by the telephone exchange, that he wrote an angry letter of complaint to The Times newspaper. It sparked such outrage that the government of the day (led by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin) launched an inquiry, which led a couple of years later to the introduction of a test 999 scheme in the capital.

Quite marvellously the government issued the following instructions: “Only use this service if, for instance, the man in the flat next to yours is murdering his wife or you have seen a heavily masked cat burglar peering round the stack pipe of the local bank building. If the matter is less urgent - if you have merely lost little Towser or a lorry has come to rest in your front garden - just call up the local police.”

A week later - in July, 1937 - someone must have seen a masked man peering around a stack pipe for a call was made and a burglar apprehended. The 999 system was off and running.

It was extended to all UK major cities after the end of the Second World War, but - something that surprised me - wasn’t implemented throughout the country until 1976, the year of my birth, though that is, I’m sure, simply a coincidence.

Why was 999 chosen as the number I hear you yelp?

Because the old public payphones had a rotary dial (you know, where you stuck your finger in the hole of the number of your choice and turned it clockwise … kids, you will have absolutely no idea what we’re on about), the theory being that the nine was so easy to locate (right next to the dial stop) that even in dense smoke - or if you were visually impaired - you could find it.

Last year there were 31 million calls to the 999 service and - get this - 98 per cent of them were answered within five seconds.

What an incredible country we live in.

Right, book number one finished, I’m off to start Mrs Canavan’s - I’ll let you know what happens to Derek and Pam.

My lazy cat Percy really is such a basket case

My mother’s gift ahead of the birth of baby Canavan is a moses basket.

She got it second hand from the local church car boot sale. “Four pounds, what a bargain,” she rang me to say. “It had an odd stain on the bottom - smelt like smoked haddock - but I’ve managed to get it off with a bit of Vanish.”

She scrubbed it to within an inch of its life, then made me clean the back-seat of my car before I was allowed to transport it to my house. “Now keep it pristine, there can’t be any germs on it before the baby arrives,” she instructed.

I duly put the moses basket in the back bedroom and continued with my day.

Next morning I had a shower and wandered into the back room, where, looking incredibly comfortable, Percy - the cat - was spread-eagled across the previously incredibly clean and hair-free basket.

He has since slept in it every single night and has a look on his face that says, ‘back off sunshine, this is my bed now and I’m going nowhere’..

I made the mistake of relating this tale to my mother who - I swear this is true - has not slept since and says she keeps having nightmares about our baby being killed because the cat has jumped on him in the night. “You’ve got to buy a net to hang over it and keep the cat out,” my mother has said in every single phone call since Saturday.

‘Okay mum,’ I say.

“I’m not joking Steven,” she replies, using my full Christian name to emphasise the gravity of the situation. “If you want to be responsible for the death of your own child, then go ahead, fine, be it on your conscience.” She’s never one to be dramatic my mother.

I’ve had to agree to buy a protective cover to keep Percy off - that’s if we can actually get him out of there before the baby arrives, of course.