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Literature / Fire Engine By Mistake

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"Of course we know other factories do make mistakes. But I must say I had always thought we never made mistakes. It appears I was wrong. We did make one."

This children’s story by Leila Berg, first published in 1955, is about a sentient vehicle which should have been a Road Sprinkler (a Gully Emptier with Street Washer Attached; it’s the same thing) in a quiet country town, but was accidentally built as a Fire Engine (a Limousine Fire Appliance with Escape Ladder) in London. This mistake was due to the Works Manager’s habit of writing 8’s which looked like 6’s, which caused the number 8008 to be mistaken for 8006 on the vehicle’s blue-prints. The titular vehicle, referred to as Number Eight Thousand and Eight felt out of place as a fire engine, but was just as brave as the ones which were meant to be fire engines.

This work contains examples of:

  • Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!:
    • Mr Billings the factory foreman is distracted by the tea leaves in his cup, thinking that they resemble his niece, and wonders why his niece's face is always clean, and his own children's always dirty. He wiggles his ears (which he never does at work), then finds that Jack the tea-boy is staring at him.
    • Bert does not wait for somebody to tell him the fire engine is ready to be driven away, as he is distracted by French words from his evening class, and thoughts about Miss Flower the receptionist, whom he hopes to marry.
    • As the fire engine is driven through the countryside, sheep stop nibbling, cows stop chewing, and horses stop dusting each other with their tails, to stare at Number Eight Thousand and Eight, the magnificent fire engine.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Jim Price is presented with a medal for his magnificent work at the fire. At the very end of the book, the fire engine receives the following touching dedication, in the form of a brass model in the fire station:
    This was Number Eight Thousand and Eight;
    He was only a fire engine by mistake;
    But he was just as brave as the ones
    That are meant to be fire engines.
  • Badass Bookworm: Bert the driver hopes to marry Miss Flower the receptionist, but is afraid she won't think he's clever enough. Because of this, he goes secretly to evening classes, to learn French.
  • Banister Slide: Jim Price is delighted to learn about firemen sliding down the pole, remembering that at home he had always wanted to slide down the banisters, which was quicker than coming down the stairs, but his mother would never allow it.
  • Brits Love Tea: In the great British tradition, many of the characters drink tea.
    • Mr Billings was sitting on a box, and didn’t stop drinking his tea to pay attention to Mr Middleton's secretary. The tea is served by Jack the tea-boy; and Mr Billings sometimes wonders what such lads get paid for.
    • When Bert and Number Eight Thousand and Eight arrive at the fire station, Mr Entwistle offers Bert a cup of tea, because the firemen have had theirs, and there is still some hot in the pot. Bert refuses the offer, saying that he thinks he might be needed back at the factory.
    • After fighting a massive fire, the firemen drink gallons and gallons of lovely wet tea that slides down their cracked, dry throats and makes them feel fine again.
    • When Gaffer decides to be a fireman again instead of a tramp, he and Mr Entwistle drink lots and lots of cups of tea.
  • The City vs. the Country: Number Eight Thousand and Eight's true home is the countryside, rather than the busy, noisy and exciting city of London.
  • Consummate Professional: Most of the characters take great pride in their work: Mr Middleton and Mr Billings from the factory, Mr Entwistle at the fire station, Jim Price who is determined to overcome his fear of heights, and Gaffer the old fireman who dislikes the modern ways. Mr Middleton and Mr Billings are very sad and remorseful when they have to break the news to Mr Entwistle that Number Eight Thousand and Eight was made into a fire engine by mistake. It is not explained how this mistake is discovered, or why factory managers care so very deeply about the feelings of vehicles.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: The reader is repeatedly told (in one chapter) that the gentleman from London is named John Adams. When the gentleman from London (whose name is John Adams, you remember) gets back to the factory after testing the engine, his crossness has vanished. Then Mr Middleton takes the gentleman from London (whose name is John Adams) back to the front gate.
  • Dress Code: The book describes a young Mr Entwistle as "just a lad in his first long trousers", referring to the tradition of young boys of the time period wearing short trousers.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Mr Billings the factory foreman, after Jack the tea-boy has caught him wiggling his ears, which he never does at work.
    Mr Billings was very busy and bustly after that. He shouted a lot, and slammed doors, and told people off.
  • Expressive Ears: Mr Billings can wiggle his ears, and he used to do it at home sometimes, as a treat for the children if they had been very good and eaten up all their supper, and got ready for bed the first time they were told.
  • Everybody Smokes: At the factory, Mr Billings has to stay and make sure the workers do not smoke cigarettes when they shouldn’t, and set the petrol on fire. The driver of the road sprinkler is described as smoking a pipe.
  • Face Your Fears: the new fireman Jim Price is afraid of heights, and shocked to learn that firemen are expected to climb ladders. So he practises climbing ladders very early in the morning, while everyone else is asleep, witnessed only by the crackling stars, the soft moon, the cold wind, and Number Eight Thousand and Eight shivering with fright.
  • Fainting: Jim Price faints on hearing the news that as a fireman, he is expected to climb not just any old ladder, but a fifty-foot escape ladder.
  • Good Old Ways: An old fireman "Gaffer" reminisces about the old ways of fighting fires, when fire engines were horse-drawn and had no bells, so the firemen had to shout HI HI HI HI as they went along, and everyone cheered and called them Jim Bradies, after Jim Braidy, the old chap who started the first fire brigade ever.
  • Grudging "Thank You": The warden at the heath who realises that Bert has put the fire out, albeit very clumsily indeed.
    The warden swallowed his bad-tempered words the way some people swallow spinach. "Thank you, that was very kind of you. GO AWAY, AND TAKE THAT CRAZY ENGINE WITH YOU!"
  • Haughty Help:
    • Mr Middleton's secretary, who tosses her long hair about when Mr Billings refuses to stop drinking his tea when she has papers for him. She is also the reason Mr Middleton cannot eat peanuts, except in private.
    • Inverted by Miss Flower the receptionist, who is really rather cross at being interrupted from talking to a very nice driver (Bert), but doesn't show it, as she has been very sensibly brought up.
  • Henpecked Husband: Mr Billings's wife does not allow Mr Billings to eat treacle pudding very often, because it makes him fat, and she wouldn't want him to be fat.
  • Heroic Fire Rescue: As he delivers the fire engine to London, he comes across a little heath fire, and wrestles with his conscience about stopping to put it out. He decides to do so, but discovers that using a fireman's hose is a lot more difficult than he had imagined.
    "Of course, I'm on my way to London.
    Of course, I'm not a fireman. I'm just a driver.
    Of course, this fire engine doesn't belong to me, anyway.
    Of course, there isn't any water, or a hosepipe in it - good heavens, yes there is!"
  • The Illegible: Mr Middleton's 8's look like 6's, which is how the titular mistake happens.
  • Ironic Fear: Jim Price decided to become a fireman rather than an aeroplane pilot, because he didn't like being high in the air; he had not anticipated that firemen are expected to climb ladders.
    "B-b-but I thought only window cleaners and people like that had to climb ladders. Why do firemen have to climb ladders, sir?"
  • It's All My Fault: When it is revealed that Number Eight Thousand and Eight was mistakenly built as a fire engine instead of road sprinkler, Mr Middleton insists it was his fault because of his 8's that look like 6's; while Mr Billings insists that it was his fault because of his passion for treacle pudding, which caused him to delegate the task of reading Mr Middleton's writing to Jack the tea-boy. The men are illustrated as pointing to themselves.
  • Leaning on the Furniture: When Mr Middleton is eating peanuts in private, he has his feet up on a little table.
  • Long List: When Number Eight Thousand and Eight is being built, someone puts seats in him – and cupboards – a radio set – control wheels – a hand bell – an electric bell – a water tank – a hosepipe reel – and oh, for heaven’s sake, what was that enormous heavy weight they were putting on him now? An escape ladder! What did a road sprinkler want with that!
  • Men Buy from Mars, Women Buy from Venus: Being of its time, this book has men and women in very traditional roles, with men being managers and firemen (notice the use of "fireman" rather than the more modern "firefighter"), while the few women mentioned are haughty secretaries, receptionists whom drivers hope to marry, and bossy wives and mothers to the men. The fire engine is referred to as "he".
  • Mood Whiplash: The gentleman from London is very uncomfortable and cross when he arrives to test the fire engine, and tries hard to find something wrong. But when he sees how the engine goes on the road (hoping it will have to be towed back by a breakdown lorry), beautifully, smoothly, purring along... gently rolling along... all his crossness vanishes, and he pronounces the fire engine "a lovely job".
  • No Name Given: Some very minor characters are given full names, but the reader only learns the surnames of many of the principal characters.
    • Minor characters named are: Mr Wilberforce (see Shrunk in the Wash below), the countrymen Farmer Brown, Farmer Tom, Tim Jones, Jack Squire and Daniel King who run after the fire engine. Mr Billings's niece is named as Marlene, but his children are merely "his own children".
    • The gentleman from London is thrice named as John Adams.
    • Most of the women are not named, merely being somebody's secretary, wife, or mother. An exception is Miss Flower in the reception room.
  • The Notable Numeral: Number Eight Thousand and Eight, the fire engine.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The gentleman from London who tests the fire engine, who is cross because his woolly vest is as hot as ever, and he tries hard to find something wrong with the fire engine.
    He hoped that the paint wasn't shiny and even. But it was. He hoped that the lion on the shield was facing the wrong way. But it wasn't. He hoped that the painter had spelt "London" wrong. But he hadn't.
  • Odd Reaction Out: When Mr Entwistle tells the new recruits to the fire service that they will soon practise climbing ladders, they all cheer, except young Jim Price, who is afraid of heights, and had not anticipated the need to climb ladders.
  • Oh, Crap!: Mr Billings has a double helping.
    • Full of excitement and unable to stop himself, he rings the fire engine bell (TINGALINGALINGALINGALINGALINGALING!), causing people nearby to believe there is a fire. He lies at the bottom of the cab, absolutely horrified; and to cover his tracks, he accuses Jack the tea-boy of ringing the bell.
    • He then accidentally walks in on Mr Middleton, who is eating peanuts and getting pieces of shell all over his neat moustache, while taking refuge from his haughty secretary in a room marked “IMPORTANT MEETING. PRIVATE. DO NOT DISTURB”. In a period of Let Us Never Speak of This Again, the men do not speak to each other again at all for two weeks and two days.
  • Over-the-Shoulder Carry: The young fireman Jim Price has to learn the proper way of carrying people when rescuing them from a burning building. When he does this for a competition, he rescues an old fireman who says he doesn't mind being "rescued" just that one afternoon.
  • Pep-Talk Song: The Fireman's song, which all firemen learn when they have passed their tests and learned to be proper firemen.
    I wake with a frown
    as the bells go down
    And down the pole I slide,
    I buckle my belt
    While out we pelt
    As our engine shoots outside.
    Not a second to spare -
    The whole crew’s there
    Before you can count to three.
    Ting Tingaling,
    The firebells ring,
    It's a fireman's life for me,
    YOU BET!
    A fireman's life for me!
  • Product Placement: Mr Entwistle has lots of medals, which he polishes with Brasso.
  • Reading Tea Leaves: Mr Billings tries to read the tea leaves in his cup: he sees a face with a long nose, and wonders if Marlene, his long-nosed niece is coming to see them.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Mr Entwistle, who kindly educates Jim Price on the reality that firemen are expected to climb ladders to rescue people.
  • Scenery Porn: The British countryside is lovingly described, through the seasons of summer, autumn and winter, after the fire engine has run away and stopped in a field.
  • Sentient Vehicle: The fire engine Number Eight Thousand and Eight, whose feelings are regularly noted in the text. He is aware of being built, enjoys the excitement of the fire station, but is terrified of fighting a real fire. Number Eight Thousand and Eight’s true place is being a road sprinkler in a quiet country town.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: The technical names of the vehicles made by the factory, which are repeated several times in the first chapter:
    • Refuse Collector with Tipper. (That was the rubbish lorry.)
    • Limousine Fire Appliance with Escape Ladder. (That was the fire engine.)
    • Tractor with the Right-Hand Steering. (That couldn’t be anything but a tractor.)
    • Gully Emptier with Street Washer Attached. (That was the road sprinkler.)
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Mr Middleton, whose grooming routine is described in detail, and who hitches up his trousers carefully when he sits down, so as not to spoil the creases.
    And his shoes were always very shiny, because he polished them every morning without fail, and finished them off with a brush and a soft yellow cloth.
  • Shown Their Work: The book is full of details about factories and fire engines. An author's note at the beginning expresses her gratitude to Press Liaison Officer at the London Fire Brigade Headquarters, and a factory fire engine department, who patiently answered all her questions. This note adds that if there is anything impossible in this story, it is not their fault.
  • Shrunk in the Wash: When trying to use a fireman's hose, Bert accidentally sprays a man's flannel trousers, which shrink so dreadfully after this watering, that the man who is on holiday has to go home two days before time, because everyone in the boarding house laughs at him.
  • Silent Treatment: Mr Middleton is so angry at the way Mr Billings had walked into a room marked IMPORTANT MEETING. PRIVATE. DO NOT DISTURB, that he doesn’t speak to Mr Billings again for two weeks and two days. And Mr Billings doesn’t speak either.
  • The Tooth Hurts: Mr Middleton drinks coffee and eats biscuits with sugar on them, which gets into a hole in one of his teeth, which upsets him and makes him quarrelsome.
  • The Tramp: When the fire engine has been resting in a field for months, a tramp approaches, complete with a Bindle Stick; and because he used to be a fireman, he loves the fire engine the moment he sees him.
  • Thinking Out Loud: The tramp tells his story by furiously talking to himself.
  • This Is Not a Drill: The fire engine believed that smoke and flames were kept in a special cupboard in the practice yard, until someone leans out of a window and shouts "help!". In terror, the fire engine then runs away.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Mr Billings loves treacle pudding, and Mr Middleton covets "those nice biscuits" with sugar on them.
  • Tranquil Fury: Mr Middleton's reaction to the gentleman from London trying so hard to find something wrong.
    "I’m glad you're satisfied," said Mr Middleton in a quiet, quarrelsome voice.
  • Water Hose Rodeo: Bert, when as a non-fireman, he tries to operate a fireman's hose.
    The only kind of hose he had ever picked up was the garden hose at home, and even then he preferred the little watering-can with the roses painted on it. He couldn't manage a powerful fireman’s hose at all. Bert grabbed the hose as quickly as he could. It kept dashing away from him, but he caught it in the end. Then it whacked him on the shoulder and tried to turn round and spray water in his face. "You beastly thing!" Bert kept saying to the hose. "You beast! You beast!"