When he helped a man from the river, John Tomsett found himself at the centre of a story he didn’t recognise…
This is how it happened. Honest.
It was two days before Christmas, in the middle of the coldest winter I could remember. Half our family had proper flu. The cricket from Australia was on TV all night. Under a duvet on the front room sofa, in front of the coal fire, was the obvious, most sensible place for me to sleep.
The Ouse had been frozen thick for days and covered in snow. When the shout of “Help” woke me I knew what it would be. I ran out the front door, down onto the river’s tow path, and hauled a hefty bloke from the very edge of the river. He was standing in the water up to his waist, leaning against the concrete.
It was only when he looked at me askance that I realised I was wearing nothing but my underpants. We laughed, he went home and I got back under the duvet. I got up and did my son’s paper round an hour later. On the way home I caught a great view of the total lunar eclipse. All by 7.30am.
And that was it. Or so I thought. On Boxing Day, as our family was leaving the matinee performance of Stockport Plaza’s Peter Pan, the York Press rang. They’d heard about the river rescue. They wanted a Christmas good news story. They wanted to know what kind of pants I was wearing.
When we got back to York I found a business card on the front door mat from an ITN reporter wanting an interview. Every billboard in York shouted: HERO PULLS MAN FROM ICY OUSE. There were two pages in the Press, incuding the cover story.
And then there was the Mail, the Telegraph, the Sun, the Mirror, and even the Sussex Express (my county of birth – my mum hosted a whole coffee morning based on that one). A Manchester blogger even reported my arrest:
Despite the publicity, when I walked past the man I saved a few days later he showed no flicker of recognition whatsoever.
When I returned to school the first person I met told me how proud she was of what I’d done. I explained what had really happened. She stopped smiling. I walked into a class first lesson and applause rang out. I explained what really happened. They stopped clapping. I soon realised I couldn’t tell the truth. People wanted to believe the hero narrative. The truth wasn’t enough.
The lesson I learnt from this riverbank tale is the simple cliché: never let the truth get in the way of a good story. More profoundly, what surfaced was the desire in us for heroic narratives. It is a desire that is rooted in our Anglo-Saxon heritage, when the Anglo-Saxon poet, the scop, recited from memory long poems recalling the deeds of heroes or gods. Story-telling is in our DNA.
In order to satisfy our hero-hunger, this Christmas there were two different HERO PULLS MAN FROM ICY OUSE stories on the Press. I’m sure these heroes were far more deserving of the label than I was; or maybe they weren’t…
Read all about it
- John Tomsett, head teacher at Huntington School, pulls Mike Brown from frozen river – York Press
- ‘Last night I saved a DJ’s life’: Hero headteacher plunges into an icy river in his underpants to haul out drowning man – Daily Mail
- Headteacher John Tomsett, 45, hailed a hero – The Sun