Jon Johnson is a quietly determined man. He loves nothing more than a challenge.
He exudes calmness. He’s just the kind of man you would want to see looming through the smoke and flames if you were trapped in a burning building. Many have.
In his prime he ran marathons and is a 7th dan black belt in karate.
That will to succeed shone through when, as an 18-year-old, he decided he wanted to be a fireman.
The former pupil at Northern Grammar School in Portsmouth had tried accountancy (‘I was bored to tears’) and a spell in the stores in the dockyard. But he hankered after something exciting.
‘I walked down to Copnor fire station one day, pressed the big red bell outside and told them I wanted to join the fire brigade,’ he says.
‘They told me I was too skinny so I went away and built myself up by drinking gallons of milk.
‘Three months later I wrote back to them and said I’d put on a lot of weight and still really wanted to join.
‘I went for an interview and half-way through the old chief fire officer for Portsmouth – a lovely man – leaned over the table, shook my hand and said “I’m going to give you a job. I like your determination”.’
And so began a 30-year career which spanned the old Portsmouth City Fire Brigade and the Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service.
It’s the same steely quality which has brought him to October 2011. Three years ago he was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
He says: ‘Last November I was given two months to live, but I’m still here. You just get on with whatever life throws at you don’t you?’
His philosophical outlook at his terminal condition comes from his Buddhist faith.
‘Of course, it’s not pleasant being like this, but I believe that I’m suffering so someone else doesn’t have to.’
He became a Buddhist when he was 20, a year after he was accepted to become a fireman. ‘Everybody had a nickname. I was either JJ or The Spiritual Fireman,’ laughs the 61-year-old, of Seaton Avenue, Copnor.
Jon, who retired in 1999, has just written a detailed account of his three decades as a firefighter serving largely at Cosham and Southsea stations.
‘I’ve been told I’m the first Hampshire firefighter to have written such a book.’
It is filled with anecdotes about his life fighting fires in Portsmouth and ‘over the border’ in Hampshire. It is packed with the humour and tales of practical jokes for which the service is renowned and recalls many of the characters with whom Jon served between 1969 and 1999.
What shines through is the camaraderie between the men, the bonds which grow between human beings when they know their life often depends on the actions of their mates.
‘There’s an old brigade saying,’ adds Jon.
‘It goes: ‘‘You might love your wife, but you would die for each other.’’ It’s so true.’
He continues: ‘My great friend Jock Balderstone saved my life twice. The first time was at a big fire in a carpet factory at Fratton.
‘We were inside. There was a flashover – everything around us was on fire. We couldn’t see anything and I thought: ‘‘This is it. This is where I die.’’ But Jock got us out of there by following the hose back the way we had come. It was the only way out.
‘The second time was when we set up a death slide for a bit of a laugh. We shouldn’t have done it. But I came off at the top. Jock grabbed me just in time...’
When Jon joined the brigade he was a fireman. He left as a firefighter. When he received his 20-year long service award in 1989 the medal was inscribed with the word ‘fireman’. It was the last year the old term was used as women were allowed to do the job.
‘Every time I attend a funeral now, or bump into my old mates, there are always two themes to our conversations.
‘One is how glad we are that we did it when we did, before there was too much health and safety and political correctness.
‘In my opinion, we didn’t need political correctness. We did what we could for anyone, anywhere, and anyone who proved he had the right attitude was OK on your watch.’
He recalls that when he went on his initial training course at Reigate, Surrey, the instructors, to get them used to smoke, would make recruits sit in a room in a smoke chamber before oily rags were set alight.
‘As the smoke level dropped a few of us would light up cigarettes to show how tough we were. Can you imagine that happening today?
‘Too much health and safety restricts the job – you have to get inside jobs to put them out. Everybody is frightened of legislation these days.
‘We had good training. It was tough and thorough and made the job safer. We even set fire to old buildings just so we could put them out.’
And the second topic of conversation? The humour.
Jon says: ‘When your mate disappears through a garage roof and you peer down to see him flat out on a car bonnet, you laugh so much you could wet yourself.
‘It’s the same when an old lady in a bed or an old chap in chair, who you thought was dead, suddenly sit up and yell: ‘What’s going on?’ You go through the roof with fright, but everybody else laughs their head off.’
He adds: ‘But, of course, when it mattered, we stuck together. We stuck together through all the jobs and through the continual battle with the employers and government ministers over pay and conditions.
‘In the end the only downside to the job was being used as a political pawn by political parties.
‘They all loved you when you were heroic or saving a town from flooding. The rest of the time you just cost money and most of them, most of the time, didn’t seem to care.
‘We struggled hard for every perk or decent pay rise we had. In the end it was this which ruined what once was the greatest job in the world.’
n The Life and Times of JJ – 30 years a Pompey Fireman is available from Jon on
(023) 9264 1563 at £10.