My dad, it must be said, is something of a Health and Safety sort of chap. That is not to say that this was his career before retirement. He was, in fact, an English teacher. Nevertheless my sister Jane and I have grown up with his maxims and mottos on the various danger points of modern day existence.
For instance, he maintains that the highest percentage of drowned people are swimmers as opposed to non-swimmers. This is because, logically, more swimmers are found in the water. They dare to take on that fickle element and they fail. You would assume that staying on dry land would be a counter to this, not so; You could get run over by a horse or stampeded by cows. If you have the window open in a moving car you will get Bell’s Palsy. Beware the rogue scone with its unpasteurised cream, the recalcitrant seafood starter and public swimming pools where you can contract anything from Lyme Disease to trench foot without leaving the reception area. Stepladders should not be used on any day without an ‘R’ in it and only then if you have a team of steeplejacks on red alert.
I used to think that his wariness and, on occasion, pessimistic panic stemmed from a childhood spent inside World War II. Many are the tales he will tell of nightmare evenings huddled in the air raid shelter listening to the bombers overhead on their way to the docklands of Salford. Death stalked the streets back then and might make anyone cautious about retaining their grip on Life.
But there are other tales he tells. These are the ones that involve his childhood pyromania. Yes. I used the word ‘pyromania’, meaning my dad loved to light fires, to the point of arson. He lit fires in all his relatives’ houses, and not necessarily always in the grate. Aunties Alice and Emily might find him tending a small pyre in an unexpected corner of the scullery or parlour on any given afternoon. An experiment with the chimney one morning resulted in his being tardy for school and getting a lift there on the returning fire engine.
Children and fire have always been a dangerous combination. The lure of the flickering flame speaks to us all. My grandmother gave him the matches and the task of lighting the fire in the grate each morning to try and assuage his lust for flame. It worked. To a point.
I doubt she ever gave a second thought to the explosive qualities of the Tate & Lyle Golden Syrup tin. I’ve always seen them as rather decorative, often saving them after I have finished using the contents for flapjack or treacle tart. My dad, when he’d finished his syrup butty, used the tin for, well, blowing stuff up.
He was encouraged in this enterprise by my grandfather, his dad, Joe. My grandfather, on his return from definitely being right in the very middle of World War II in the Middle East, was only too happy to trot down to Taskers, the pharmacist, with his only child, and acquire the kind of substances that nowadays are only available via specialist online suppliers, the purchase of which can get you listed on a very black list indeed and might even get your passport confiscated. In order to obtain these substances my granddad had merely to offer the cash and sign The Poisons Book. Life was simpler then.
A childhood in the 1940s (makes a change from the 70s doesn’t it?!) was a different beast. Alas, my dad was denied the digital and virtual delights of The Sims or Assassin’s Creed as at that point in our history even Television was still something that smacked of science-fiction. There was rumoured to be a set in Little Hulton but no one was certain. The paperback book had only just been invented and was not widely available to anyone who wasn’t T S Eliot. My dad therefore indulged in other more post-war era pursuits. He read Hotspur, played chess and tennis, was head choirboy in the church choir and he made bombs.
Yes. You know. BOOM. In the absence of an android phone and Facebook, he would idle away an hour or two in post-war Britain stripping the zinc from batteries and, using the alchemy of a conical flask and hydrochloric acid, he would make hydrogen. Yes. That one. H. The explosive element one.
If the appeal of hydrogen manufacture waned a little there was always time to tinker with the gas cooker, a syrup tin and some sodium carbide. Another tick in the Poisons Book for that one. Their neighbour Mrs Berry never complained once about his football going over the yard wall, instead she would knock on the door, her freshly nuked hair still smoking and request that he stop blowing things up as it was frightening her hens. Mrs Berry’s hens, the only kind to lay pre-boiled eggs.
These pastimes were all things he had learnt the bones of in Chemistry at the Grammar school. Ah, the Grammar School system, the one they are considering bringing back.
Today, we moan because children don’t get out much. They are chained to their computers and tablets, mesmerised by games. Only in recent days has ‘Pokemon Go’ and its treasure hunt delights prised many a teenager from their swivelly computer chair into the burning August sunlight. We often hark back to a brighter age, where children had a more innocent time and ‘played out’. Sometimes we forget that theirs was a world scarred by global warfare and that they played on the bombsites and derelict buildings of our half dead cities.
Despite all his wary warnings I note that he now keeps his electric lawnmower in the garden. For convenience. It is a faff getting it out of the shed.
“But it’s raining.” I said the other afternoon.
“Only a bit.” was his reply. “And the plug is in a margarine tub with the lid on.”
I should be thankful, I suppose, it isn’t in a Golden Syrup tin.