Thursday, 8 April 2010


As mentioned several times on here, sport was an important part of school life and it took a lot to get games lessons cancelled. During the winter you could expect to be forced to play football or rugby on pitches that were either as hard as concrete or so wet that entire teams went missing, sucked down into the depths only to emerge years later like bog bodies clad in ‘House’ colours. Summer was however, different.

Summer sports involved cricket and athletics and our cricket field was also used by the county side as a training ground so the groundsman was less than happy to have sixty lads tearing up his beautiful turf should the weather be a bit on the damp side. Thus on those days when it was chucking it down we would find ourselves confined to the school gyms and the game of potential violent death that was indoor cricket.

Indoor cricket was simple…and deadly. You had two chairs acting as wickets, a full size cricket bat and a tennis ball. In order to score runs you had to hit the ball somewhere in the hall. So far, so simple…but what about the deadly part? Somewhere over the years the rules had been amended a little. Rumour had it this had occurred in 1975 and coincided with the release of the film ‘Rollerball’. Not only did you score points by running back and forth between the wickets but points were also awarded for how many of the opposing team were put out of action. This could be achieved by scything their legs from under them in a sliding attempt to reach the wicket before the ball or by giving the ball a hard enough thwack to turn it into a deadly missile that ricocheted off walls and into the backs of the fielding teams heads. A massive ten points was awarded for hitting the right hand top panel of the gymnasium doors which meant that the ball had to be hit with some force at roughly head height causing bowlers and fielders to hit the floor rather than risk decapitation by a manky old tennis ball.

It was always possible to tell which year had been on ‘wet games’ as at 3.30pm they would stagger from the gym holding handkerchiefs to bleeding noses or wads of wet paper towels to already swollen eyes. A few would even emerge disconsolately holding a dislodged tooth in the hope that their parents knew a really good dentist.

Thus it was that one particularly soggy summer day in 1980 we found ourselves in the school gym and forced to take part in the orgy of violence and bloodshed that was indoor cricket. The games teacher had left us to it and had returned to the comfort of the P.E masters room no doubt to catch up with the papers and have a crafty slug of the Scotch we knew was kept in the filing cabinet.

We had been playing for about an hour. The bodies were already piling up on the mats at the back of the gym. There were at least two minor concussions, a split lip, a black eye and Toby was curled into a ball clutching his groin. However, we had just bowled the other team out to three falls and a submission and we were in to bat. Being half decent players and not having suffered any debilitating wounds during our fielding my kindly team mates volunteered Andy and I to go in to bat first.

Andy got the first ball. BLAT! Beautiful two wall ricochet that ended up in the middle of Micks back winding him for the few vital seconds to allow a run to be scored. Next ball. THWAP! Near miss that caused Trev’ to duck but was insanely fielded by Clive. Andy was out, next man in was Toby, still walking a bit funny from his earlier encounter with the ball. WHUMP! Deflection from the bars that left Clive with a bleeding nose and in the scramble to reach the wicket Toby took down Simon the opposition bowler with what looked like a sliding tackle culminating with a poke to the stomach with the bat.

…and so it continued. I had managed to reach 35 runs, we had whittled the other team down to seven fielders but Pete and I were the last remaining batsmen in and we were 12 points down. Pete was not a great player so it looked to be down to me. Gavin was bowling and launched a vicious bouncer in my direction. THUMP! By some miracle bat and ball connected and the ball zinged to the corner of the gym and we scored two runs. Ten points down. The next ball, an equally fast and vicious bouncer was hit and bounced off a couple of walls. Another two points were made and by this time the rest of the team were yelling encouragement. In fact they were yelling quite loudly. Loudly enough to rouse the games master from his paper in the P.E masters room.

Back in the hall I was ready for Gavins next bouncer, he launched the ball and I saw a chance. THWACK! Straight as a die the ball rocketed towards the gym doors. Ten points! Oh yes! Errr! No! With impeccable timing, the games master opened the door and my ten point ball smacked into his chin with an audible CRUNCH! He stood for a couple of seconds and then went down as if pole-axed and my cricket whites nearly went brown. Luckily Gavin who was a scout and had done his first aid badge ascertained that the games master was still alive and breathing.

It was just as Gavin had announced his diagnosis that the headmaster arrived, having also been disturbed by the noise from the gym, to discover a crowd of boys, one of whom was holding a cricket bat standing over an unconscious teacher. If that wasn’t bad enough another group of boys was huddled on the gym mats trying to staunch bleeding noses, lips and other extremities with their cricket whites. ‘Lord of the Flies’ had nothing on that scene and it was almost possible to read his thoughts from the haunted look on his face. Should he go on or should he swiftly retreat, lock the doors and call the police, the army and possibly the local asylum as well?

Fortunately sanity prevailed and everything was soon sorted out. The school matron was called and arrived swiftly only smelling ever so slightly of medicinal brandy and between the headmaster and the hastily summoned head of maths the games master was carted off to the school medical room. Strangely we never got to play indoor cricket ever again. Wet games days were spent improving ourselves in the school library where the likelihood of sudden and violent death was a lot less… unless of course the librarian went a bit mental with the date stamp.

Thursday, 3 December 2009


The school nativity play was obviously one of the highlights of the year. It was a time when parents appeared to discover their inner religiousness and could be heard muttering “Oh Christ! It’s that time of year again!” and everyone from first year infants to second year juniors joined together to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

For us kids it was a time to escape the boredom of normal afternoon lessons from the end of November to the big day itself as we rehearsed and practiced under the tutelage of Miss Dent, our somewhat earnest ‘Music and Movement’ teacher.

The format of the play was pretty much set in stone, there wasn’t much scope for radical change, Miss Dent was not noted for her avant garde ideas and the Pythons had not come up with the ‘Life of Brian’ at that point. As it had been for years of school nativity plays and continues up to this day, Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem, get put up in a stable filled with kids dressed in costumes vaguely resembling sheep and cows and the rocking horse from the pre-schoolers classroom disguised as a Donkey, are visited by shepherds aka more kids with their mums best tea towel on their heads, three wise men (more kids but those whose parents could make a better looking costume) and a bunch of angels (all the girls who failed to get the starring role of Mary in sheets and glittery wings made from coat hangers). At some point the infant Jesus is miraculously born, miraculously meaning skipping the childbirth thing lest it traumatise the parents and turns out to be a doll that lost an arm sometime round 1969 wrapped in a towel. All the kids sing some hymns in praise of this, the assembled parents go “Ahhhh!” and the teachers think “Thank God that’s over for another year!” and head home for a stiff gin. Not a lot can go wrong.

Well, not a lot can go wrong unless you decide to add a squad of Roman soldiers to the mix as Miss Dent decided to do. It was quite an innocent idea really, to have three Roman soldiers stop the weary Joseph and Mary on the road to Bethlehem and ask who they were so that Joseph and Mary could introduce themselves to the audience. During rehearsals this went fine, the centurion played by Damian simply said “Halt! Who seeks entrance to Bethlehem?” and Joseph answered “Two tired travellers, Mary and Joseph from Gallillee”

However, come the big day things did not quite work out so nicely. Part of it might have been my fault but much of the blame fell on Miss Dent and her quest for authenticity as she demanded that the Roman soldiers were armed with swords and spears to add to their military authority. Even aged seven I had a fair collection of toy weapons and two of these were modelled on the Roman Gladius so being the good schoolboy I was I volunteered them for the school play. I believe the rest of the class described it as ‘sucking up to the teacher’. That’s my part in the sorry debacle that followed. The rest of the blame fell squarely on Damian and Simon, the latter of whom was playing Joseph. A minor playground spat over some Matchbox cars had blown up into all out warfare with Damians ‘gang’ who happened to consist of the other two ‘soldiers’ and Simons gang constantly at each others throats.

So, come the afternoon of the play the local church hall that was used was filled with parents and grandparents, some of whom had not had several large drinks before coming to numb them to the pain of a primary school nativity, most of the teachers who were wishing they had had several stiff drinks and of course the vicar.

The lights were dimmed and the play began and began well with the Angel of the Lord beginning her narration and Mary and Joseph appearing from one side of the stage trudging their weary way to Bethlehem. It went quite well for about thirty seconds more until the Romans appeared. Costume problems meant that their breast plates and helmets were made out of cardboard covered with tinfoil so they looked less like Romans than a bunch of schoolkids who had gone a bit mental in the stationery cupboard. They were however, armed. Armed with my toy swords and a dangerous looking spear consisting of a cardboard point stuck to one of the caretakers broom handles.

“Halt!” cried Damian in his best centurions voice…and then in a total deviation from the script demanded “Your papers please!” in his best impression of a boys war comic Gestapo officer. From where the rest of us were standing in the wings you could see teachers beginning to twitch.

“Wha’? We haven’t got any papers.” Said Simon, confusion written on his face.

“Then you’re not getting into Bethlehem. Push off!” replied Damian poking Simon with his sword.

“Yes we are!” was Simons answer only to be told “No you’re not!” and rewarded with another poke of the sword. By now, the audience was beginning to pay attention, even the ones who had previously been planning to sleep off their several large whiskies. A number of the teachers had begun to move down the aisle.

“Don’t poke me with that again or I’ll duff you up!” snapped Simon. Poke went the sword and all hell broke loose. Imagine the scene in ‘Gladiator’ when the Romans are doing battle with the Germanic hordes. It was like that with seven year olds. Simon jumped on Damian, Damians two mates jumped on Simon. The shepherds who consisted of three of Simons friends rushed on stage and began battering the Romans with their crooks and the Angel of the Lord who was Damians older sister jumped from her podium and began to lay into them yelling “Stop hitting my brother or I’ll bash you!” in a most un-angelic manner. Fists were flying, glittery wings, tea towels and cardboard armour were sailing to the four winds and Miss Dent looked like she was about to burst into tears as several of the other teachers waded in to separate the combatants and cart them off to the room at the back of the hall.

With the loss of several of the leads the performance was doomed to conclude in a rather half hearted rendition of ‘Oh come all ye faithful’ by the non-combatants and afterwards we were sworn to “Never talk of this again!” by Miss Dent who was seen shortly afterwards buying several bottles of vodka in the local off licence.

I never got my swords back either.

Thursday, 6 August 2009


Public information films were all the rage during my formative years. Switch on the TV and between Robin Hood and Tomorrow People you could be told not to throw Frisbees at electricity pylons, lock yourself in the fridge, hurl yourself into unknown waters or muck about with farm machinery if you found yourself out in the countryside. Of course, having a best friend, Alastair who happened to live on a farm meant that most of us knew these warnings were for the townie kids who might see the countryside once in a lifetime. We already knew that you stayed away from pointy things, did not climb inside the threshing machine and did not press the big button marked ‘Do NOT press this big button if your friend has crawled inside the threshing machine (unless you want to turn them into four stone of mince)’. Oh and if these failed there was always Alastair’s dad who gave us dire warnings of what to expect if any of us did muck about with the machinery…he would most likely kill us himself and that included the one who had been minced, bailed, threshed or trampled by annoyed sheep as well. In fact, not only would he kill them but would drag their remains back home for their parents to kill as well.

Thus it was with such a warning to stay away from the unlocked shed full of agricultural chemicals that nowadays would have a trainee suicide bomber salivating at the thought and an even bigger warning to stay away from the open cesspit that had been dug out and was waiting to be filled in that we found ourselves left alone with our bicycles in the farmyard one winter morning during the school holidays.

So, what were we to do? It was too cold to go up to the old pigsty that we used as a den and Paul had to be home by lunchtime as his grandmother was coming to visit so cycling to town was out as well. We were still trying to decide when Alastair who had been kicking stones into the old cesspit suddenly announced “I bet I could jump that on my bike!” Naturally we tried to dissuade him with that age old method used by nine year olds of “Go on then!”, “Bet you can’t!”, “Give you this bag of Blackjacks if you do!”

We had of course completely forgotten the dire warnings that his dad had given us less than half an hour earlier and having banished it from our thoughts, scouted around for something to make a ramp for Alastair to make his daredevil attempt. An old plank was dragged out of one of the outbuildings and set up against a pile of earth to one side of the excavation. Alastair cycled to the end of the yard and as we watched, pedalled as fast as he could. He hit the ramp perfectly, sailed into the air and…

…performed a perfect landing on the other side earning himself a chorus of “You jammy sod!” and a crumpled bag of sweets that had seen better days. Then for the next fifteen minutes or so the rest of emulated his feat and we all cleared the pit every time until Paul announced “I’m going to try it from the other way” and of course we tried our utmost to put him off doing so with “Bet you can’t!”, “Give you the sweets if you do!” etc etc.

So, the plank was moved to another pile of earth, this time at the end of the cesspit and Paul cycled to the top of the yard and as Alastair before him, pedalled furiously down towards the pit. He hit the plank and sailed across the 8’ gap to perform a perfect landing on the other side, not even suffering testicular trauma from the gear stick on his Raleigh Chopper which was a shame as that was what we had wanted to see. He was however, travelling quite fast having gained a fair speed from distance he had travelled in his run up and the slight slope of the yard. Also, it being winter and Alastairs’s dad having hosed the yard after bringing the cows in for milking in the early hours of the morning meant there was a large patch of ice and Paul hit it, skidding and losing control of his bicycle.

We could only watch in stunned silence as he slid towards the wall of the milking shed and the by product of a largish herd of cows that lay waiting for Alastair’s dad to return with the tractor to remove it sometime after lunch. Boy and bicycle met manure pile and shed with a sickening SQUELCH…THUD…ARGH! Long seconds passed as we stared open mouthed as Paul picked himself up and tottered towards us resembling some nightmare creature from the bog and as usual, being the lovely, caring children we were, ran away screaming “Argh! Crapmonster!”

However, that did not last for long as we realised we had to get away before Alastairs dad returned and discovered that we had disobeyed him. Not that the evidence of a bent bike in the middle of a pile of cow dung wasn’t enough to convict us in our absence. Ignoring that fact completely we cycled off rather hurriedly, propelling Paul ahead of us with a long stick from the hedgerow outside the farm gate until we reached his house…just as his grandmother arrived in a taxi to be presented not with the well scrubbed and well behaved young man she expected but by three urchins and a grandson liberally smeared in cow shit. Her face remains imprinted on my memory and the look that Pauls mum gave us indicated we would all soon find ourselves in much deeper shit than Paul had ever been in.

Still, at least we did not go near the unlocked shed full of agricultural chemicals. At least, not that time.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Apologies for lack of updates

Apologies to readers of this blog for the lack of recent posts. Due to illness (my own and other members of the family) and needing time outside of work to deal with this I have not been able to write as much as I would like. However, there are more tales yet to come so keep checking as I promise there will be an update at some point.

Monday, 9 March 2009

A sense of chemistry

It may have been years of sniffing fumes that the not quite as efficient as they could be fume cupboards at our school had allowed to escape. It could just have been a natural propensity towards insanity but most of our chemistry masters showed a shocking tendency to lean in the direction of the more mentalist end of the spectrum.

Mr Roberts was incredibly trusting to the point of naivety and would leave entire classes to their own devices for periods at a time, returning only at the sound of fire alarms or clouds of poisonous gases rolling down the corridor. Mr Peters bordered on the psychotic and his accuracy with a board rubber was legendary as many of us discovered with a chalky smack to the back of the head and Mr Burton was well, in a league of his own. Mr Burton was definitely not all there but Mr Burton liked practical demonstrations. He liked them a lot and did not take much note of health and safety, not that there was much of that back in 1983 and providing he did not burn the school down or lose too many pupils his little ‘accidents’ were on the whole overlooked.

His favourite demonstration was of distillation. He would mix up some copper sulphate, a pleasantly poisonous substance, in water, attach it to a set of distillation apparatus, distil the water off and drink it to show that pure water was produced from the toxic solution. He would do this every year without fail as the fourth lesson for the first years in the lab next door to the sixth form library.

Now, as it happened a number of us sixth formers were in the sixth form library that fateful afternoon. We were supposed to be studying. In fact most us were lounging around in a state of fitful torpor following a lunchtime not at all underage drinking session at the local pub whose landlord had appalling eyesight and who apparently could not tell a sixteen year old from a sixty year old. The lab and the library had a connecting door and it was Pete, spying through the keyhole that realised that Mr Burton was going to carry out his famous demonstration. It was also Pete who suggested pulling a practical joke and it was Pete who had the means to do so in his pocket.

Pete was our resident delinquent and punk rocker. He spent most of his out of school hours hanging around the local park with the older punks drinking whatever concoctions they had managed to steal from the local supermarket or in the case of Pete, his dads cocktail bar. Nowadays hanging around in parks drinking cider is the preserve of the local chavs, back then it was the preserve of middle class schoolboys with safety pins in their blazer as a sign of rebellion. As a result of this Pete habitually carried a half bottle of vodka around with him in his rucksack, something that would lead to him being carried out of the boys toilets one lunchtime during the A-Level exams, half conscious and mumbling something about how he fancied Mrs O’Hara, the head of biology and a lady who made Mrs Thatcher look sweet and cuddly.

Anyhow, a plan was swiftly hatched and put into action. Andy was sent to knock on the door of the lab and when Mr Burton answered, informed him that the headmaster wished to see him rather urgently. As Mr Burton left Pete was through the connecting door like a shot and began phase two of the plan. The distilled water in a lab beaker at the end of the apparatus was quickly poured down the sink and replaced with a generous helping of vodka whilst the rest of us threatened the class of new first years with the direst of punishments if they breathed a word when Mr Burton returned. The whole operation took less than two minutes and we were all back in the library before Mr Burton wandered back looking slightly more confused than he normally did.

Unaware that he had an extra audience peering through the keyhole and any chinks in the painted glass of the door he launched into his spiel, something about the “Distillate being pure water and perfectly safe to drink as the toxic impurities had been left at the other end of the apparatus”. With this he raised the beaker and took a huge swig…coughed…gagged…gasped…swore…gasped a bit more and staggered towards the door. We all looked at each other as the sounds of him lurching across the corridor were followed by the sounds of someone being violently ill in the staff toilets.

A couple of days later in the morning assembly the headmaster reported that Mr Burton was expected to make a full recovery after a lab experiment had gone tragically wrong although he may not return for a while due to the accident exacerbating a few other problems in Mr Burtons private life.

It wasn’t until weeks later we discovered that he was a recovering alcoholic taking some seriously unpleasant drugs that would make him throw up if he so much as looked at a bottle of booze or walked within fifty yards of a pub. We just thought that the far away look was part and parcel of being a chemistry teacher inhaling all those noxious fumes, not that he was a bit partial to a bottle or two of Scotch of an evening to help him forget his days teaching horrible little bastards like us. Perhaps fortunately for us he eventually made a complete recovery but according to younger siblings who attended the school after we left he never performed the copper sulphate trick ever again without taking a good long sniff of what had emerged from the apparatus even if he had been standing watching the process from beginning to end.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Flour Power

‘Home Economics’, two words that struck dread into the hearts of most of the first year boys at my school. Apart from one or two who preferred needlework and making light fluffy sponges and well, they were considered a bit on the strange side anyhow. The rest of us would have much rather been in metal work making the kind of sharp, pointy implement that would give Rambo wet dreams.

It wasn’t that we hated the lesson as such, at the end of it you got to sample the things everyone else had made and on the whole the recorded fatalities from Salmonella and Botulism were in the low double digits. No, it was simply that the double period on a Tuesday morning was stiflingly boring, made even more so by Mrs Cash, our Home Economics tutor being the most safety conscious person in the whole world and not letting us anywhere near anything vaguely sharp as well as insisting we wore the kind of outfits more at home in the chemistry labs where at least there were substances that could bring about horrible and agonising death. In Home Economics the worst that could happen would be a fellow pupil running amok with a potato masher.

Suffice it to say we tried desperately to banish the boredom but all our attempts seemed doomed to failure. The tabletop finger soccer match using dried peas came to an abrupt halt when an over enthusiastic corner kick ricocheted off the blackboard and into the batter mix Mrs Cash was showing us how to make resulting in a ban on dried peas. The Spaghetti catapult incident led to just about everything being banned apart from flour and what harm could flour do?

As it happens, quite a lot in the wrong hands! In the hands of a baker it can be made into succulent, crisp crusted loaves or indulgent cakes. In the hands of a bunch of schoolboys it becomes a near lethal weapon.

It was a dreary November day and we were supposed to be making rock cakes when Mrs Cash was called away to attend an incident in the gym in her other role as stand in school nurse when the real one was incapacitated due to her medicinal brandy habit or on ‘holiday’ due to the same. Now was the time for mischief but what could we do? We had no sharp implements so murder and torture were out of the question. All we had was flour, water, margarine and currants and barring covering the class swot in ‘Stork’ there wasn’t much else we could do. It was Gavin who suggested the ‘pillar of flame’, as he had seen it done by some lads in the council flats where his aunt lived. All we needed was a stairwell, a bag of flour and matches and we had all three. As a precaution, just in case someone got a bit too enthusiastic with the flambĂ© the classroom had a fire exit that led to a concrete stairwell, we had bags of flour and given the smoking habits of half the boys in the school there was no shortage of matches and lighters either.

The method of making the ‘pillar of flame’ was easy, someone, in our case Gavin, stood at the top of the stairs and shook flour down through the stairwell, someone at the bottom, Andy, threw a match into the descending flour and the result was a pleasing pillar of flame. All very spectacular the first two times we did it but we had failed to notice that not all the flour burnt and the air was getting thick with dust. On the third attempt Gavin, perhaps trying to impress may have shaken a bit too much as when the match was hurled the result was not so much ‘pillar of flame’, more ‘wrath of God’. In fact it may be that the whole ten commandments and burning bush thing was less a religious experience than a couple of Israelites arsing about with wheat based products when Moses arrived on Mount Sinai.

Fortunately most of us were shielded by the stairs and only received a superficial scorching but Gavin who had been leaning over the edge of the top banister took the full force of the flaming column that ignited with an audible ‘WHOMPH’ that rattled the door at the base of the stairs. This was followed by noises that could only be described as a strangled “Argh!” and a slightly louder “SHIIIITE!” We raced to the top of the stairs to find Gavin standing in a state of total shock, his face red, missing his eyebrows and with wisps of smoke rising from his hair. Below us Andy was frantically stamping on his white coat that had gone a distinctly sooty colour. Quickly we bundled Gavin back into the classroom and stuck his head under the tap at one of the sinks…just as Mrs Cash arrived back from whatever emergency had occurred in the gym to find us apparently trying to drown one of our number whilst another stood gazing forlornly at a coat that appeared to have been put in the oven at gas mark four.

As she stood staring in disbelief at the now soaking and eyebrow-less Gavin it was possible to see her struggling with how to phrase “What the fucking hell is going on here you little bastards?” in terms that could be delivered to a bunch of 11 and 12 year old children. It was left to Martin, always one to come up with a good answer to say

“It was the oven Miss, the gas must have been on and when he tried to light it there was an explosion. You really ought to get the caretaker to check it out, we might have been killed.”

That it was only the boys that had apparently come to close to death was probably what led to her being less convinced of this than she was that we had been mucking around with the ovens. As a result we got to spend the rest of the lesson copying out recipe books whilst frantically praying that she would have no need to go to the fire exit stairwell which was covered in flour and scorch marks and that we could blame the devastation on the 3rd form who had the lesson after ours.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Atomic Fireball II

You might have thought we had learnt our lesson. Messing around with things that go bang is not a good idea especially when it earns you a walloping from your friends grandfather for half destroying his greenhouse and most of his prize winning vegetables. However, the lesson had obviously not sunk in as a year after doing just that Stuart, Sanjeev and myself were once again dabbling in the dark arts of making things go ‘BOOM!’

My parents and I had moved earlier in the year and were living on the upper floors of my grandparents large Georgian House whilst our new house was being extensively redecorated to remove the kind of wallpaper that even by the middle of the 70s was considered hideous and brown, the like of which can only be seen nowadays in re-runs of ‘The Sweeney’ or ‘Life on Mars’, that the previous owners had so loved. This in turn meant that I was living close to Sanjeev and Stuart, my friends who lived close to my grandparents.

For some reason that summer the craze amongst the local boys was not bubblegum card collecting or something equally safe and not likely to end up in hideous death. It was making bangers from the metal tubes inside pens or small pieces of copper pipe. Naturally being the good, well-behaved lads we were we stayed away from such pursuits and played chess or read encyclopaedias in our spare time. Sorry, that would be a bare-faced lie. We blew stuff up by filling the tubes with scraped matches, crimping the ends and throwing them onto small fires we had built round the back of the derelict church hall just like everybody else.

They made quite impressive bangs and on the whole there were surprisingly few fatalities but then things started to get a bit competitive between us and a couple of the other gangs of neighbourhood kids who also hung round the back of the hall to blow stuff up. In fact it was not so much competitive as an arms race in miniature and we were determined to go nuclear first.

Now getting hold of the Plutonium and other stuff that goes into an atomic bomb was a bit beyond us as ten year olds even if Sanjeevs' dad did work at the local university so we improvised. As it would happen plumbers working on some new houses nearby had left several six inch lengths of one inch copper pipe lying around and these were duly purloined and after using my granddads tools to bend and seal one end, filled with a mixture of gunpowder from the bangers Stuart always seemed to have, all our available supplies of plastic caps, a Vesuvius fountain Sanjeev had saved from the previous years Guy Fawkes party and about three large boxes worth of scraped match heads. In fact, come that Autumn my mother could be constantly heard complaining that all the matches to light the fire seemed to have disappeared from the kitchen cupboard. I of course denied all knowledge. We soon had two ‘bangers’ that were in hindsight, not so much bangers as improvised weapons of mass destruction that nowadays would have the US marines storming our houses under cover of mass airstrikes and an artillery barrage to make sure they did not fall into the wrong hands.

Now, not wanting to seem like right lemons in front of the other kids if our handiwork failed to go boom in a satisfying way we decided that one of them should be sacrificed in a test run much like the Manhattan Project had tested the first atom bomb in the desert. We unfortunately did not have a desert or a test rig. What we did have was the back of Sanjeevs granddads shed and a largish plant pot. Looking back, spending our pocket money on a flight to the Mojave might have been a good idea. We filled the pot with paper, wood and anything else vaguely flammable and added a dash of methylated spirits just to make sure, rested the ‘banger’ with the least amount of our explosive mixture in it across the pot, flung in one of the few matches we had not turned into headless sticks and ran for cover.

We waited and waited a bit longer, none of us were about to go back and then suddenly:


The detonation was far louder than any of us had expected and a not insubstantial mushroom cloud of smoke rose behind the shed. “Yes, it had worked, we could go down to the church hall and show the other kids…hang on, why was there still smoke pouring from behind the shed ?”

Did I forget to mention that this was 1976? The summer had been hot and dry, roads had melted, people were frying eggs on the bonnet of their Ford Capri and the vegetation behind the shed was tinder dry. The explosion had shattered the plant pot and scattered flaming debris amongst the weeds and now flames were licking up the side of the shed. In a moment of the kind of blind panic that only ten year old boys who have just committed an act of inadvertent arson can have we ran back into the house desperately searching for something to put the flames out, totally ignoring the fact that right next to the shed was the garden hose. Anyhow, we had all heeded the dire warnings about not wasting water under pain of horrible death and a stern telling off from the government minister for drought.

In full fire fighting mode we pelted back out clutching a soda siphon and a number of bottles of Panda Pop lemonade that anyone who grew up in the 70s will tell you, were pretty useless at quenching thirst let alone fighting fires due to their rather small size. Desperately we squirted and poured only to be surrounded by clouds of steam smelling vaguely of burnt sugar but the blaze continued. It was perhaps lucky that Sanjeevs dad chose that moment to come home and that he had the presence of mind to totally ignore the dire water wasting warnings and get stuck in with the garden hose whilst we stood guiltily back and tried to pretend that we were not really there.

Five minutes later the fire was well and truly out although the end of the shed looked worse for wear and a swathe of the garden was well and truly crisped. Sanjeevs dad, who was one of the politest and well spoken people I had ever encountered stood looking at us as if unable to say what he was really thinking until finally he managed to slowly and with precise pronunciation say

“What is the meaning of this……..bloody outrage?”

It was no use denying it, we were caught red handed, bang to rights and could not even claim it was caused by plummeting space junk as Stuart had a box of matches, albeit mainly headless, in his pocket. The remainder of that summer holiday was spent reading encyclopaedias and playing chess as we were not allowed outside without parental supervision. Oddly enough though, whilst lying in bed one night the air was rent by an almighty bang from a nearby street. Either our remaining ‘banger’ had found its way into enemy hands or one of the other gangs of kids had managed to up the ante a bit. Whatever it was, ten minutes later I heard sirens and could swear I could smell slightly burnt sugar.