Flaming good read

As he was: Mike battling flames in the 1970s.
As he was: Mike battling flames in the 1970s.
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THERE was one point when he was writing his debut novel, retired Sheffield firefighter Mike Hodgkins says he couldn’t see the keyboard for tears.

“It’s fiction,” he notes. “But I was using my own experiences from the job.

As he is: Mike Hodgkins at his home

As he is: Mike Hodgkins at his home

“There’s a bit where a family is killed in a blaze. That happened in the mid 1970s when I was at Darnall. It was a mum and two children living in Wetherby Court. We couldn’t save them. It was almost 40 years ago but I just started weeping.”

Be warned: you may do the same.

Better Red Than Dead, about a chief officer and his young trainee, may be made-up but it packs the punch of a very real backdraft.

Mike, who served at Darnall and High Green fire stations during a 27 year career, has drawn on the dangers, death and disasters he regularly faced. Not to mention the more surreal incidents, too.

“One episode in the book is directly taken from a time we had to rescue a cow up to its eyes in slurry. It was the middle of the night, freezing cold, and there was excrement everywhere,” he says. “Not pleasant.

“But, because we saved him, we could laugh about it afterwards. Or at least we could have done if we hadn’t had to burn our uniforms because of the stench. The station smelled for weeks afterwards.”

His daughter, Catherine, suggested he write it.

“She’d lived with a firefighter her whole childhood,” says the grandfather-of-six, who was born in Rotherham but now lives in Chesterfield. “She grew up in a house where we had a bell in case I got called out in the middle of the night. But I’d never really talked about it. She suggested I write instead.”

He started making notes about incidents he’d attended, including an explosion at a Shepcote Lane steel foundry which killed a colleague in 1976 and a hotel fire he attended in Essex which left 11 dead in 1969.

“But I didn’t like writing about myself,” he says. “It didn’t feel right so I let my imagination go and did a novel instead.”

The book, consequently, follows the lives of characters at the fictional Graveton Fire Station - “a combination of Mansfield and Darnall stations,” notes Mike, who worked here between 1974 and 1979 before taking a post in Hertfordshire.

It was picked up by The Derby Publishing Company after Mick had given up hope of getting published.

“I’d sent it to a few places and been knocked back,” he says. “I didn’t want to self-publish so I was delighted when they called.

“I’ve had some good feedback so far. Although it’s funny, the one person who hasn’t read it is my daughter.”

Available from The Star shop now.