It’s A Blast – How The Antics Of An Insane Old Colonel Have Helped To Keep Me Young At Heart


Little boys love blowing things up. The rite of passage that consists of annoying grown-ups by setting off fireworks in public places is very much a male rite of passage. A passion for pyrotechnics is something most little boys grow out of though. I never did.

Whenever the opportunity to set off fireworks “for the kids” presents itself, I am always the first to volunteer. Most blokes regard this sort of thing as an obligation, but not me. I’m there right at the start of the party, usually carrying about a hundred quid’s worth of bangers and rockets and the like, in case the ones the kids’ parents have bought them are rubbish.

The obvious explanation for this is that some little boys just never grow up. Obvious but, in this case, wrong.

By the time I was bout fourteen, my boyish interest in fireworks had waned to practically nothing. I had discovered martial arts and started doing karate. And, if you’ve ever met any fourteen year old boys, you’ll know that once they’ve caught the martial arts bug, the only other activity that even gets a look-in is masturbation.

So, for three years, I did gradings and read books about Ninjas and played with my nunchucks. Both literally and figuratively on that last one. Well, I was a teenager.

Then, when I was seventeen, I went on an educational weekend to Nottingham University. This was an event organised for Sixth Form students to give them a taste of University life. We stayed in halls of residence. We attended lectures. We drank at local pubs. (Actually, we weren’t meant to do that last one, being underage, but youth will always find a way).

Most of the lectures we attended were about physics or maths. But one of them was about chemistry, specifically the chemistry of explosives. It had a different sort of title to the rest of the lectures. While the others were called things like “Relativity And Astronomy” or “Trigonometry In The Real World”, this one was called “It’s A Blast!”. I just assumed that this title was an attempt by some stuffy academic to make some dry scientific history lesson seem a bit more funky. An attempt to be “down with the kids”, me and my fellow Sixth Formers being “the kids” back then. Albeit rather geeky kids.

I couldn’t have been more wrong about the title of that lecture. The lecture was not presented by some dry academic but by a crazy old bastard called Colonel BD Shaw. He didn’t piss about just setting off the odd bit of flash powder or doing the thermite reaction to get his point across. He set off explosions. Fucking big ones and lots of them. I came out of that lecture theatre with a renewed passion for pyrotechnics that has not abated to this day, nearly thirty years later.

That said, it has occurred to me that I’ve been remembering that lecture as being far more exciting and dangerous than at actually was. That maybe my brain had embroidered the experience a little. I mean, they wouldn’t really have let him blow a four legged wooden stool in half with a milk bottle full of acetylene, would they? Surely the health and safety people wouldn’t have let him fire a wax candle out of a live musket in a crowded lecture theatre. Would they?

Apparently, they would. Here is Colonel BD Shaw delivering the very lecture I saw all those years ago.

The quality’s not very good I’m afraid and you can’t tell how loud a lot of those bangs were – they were bloody loud, particularly when he fired the musket- but at least seeing that has confirmed that my mind didn’t make any of my memories of that lecture up.

So, thank you Colonel BD Shaw. You richly deserve the Blue Plaque they erected for you when you passed on.

Thanks to you, whenever I feel like I’m taking myself too seriously, I blow something up in my back garden. And realize that being middle aged doesn’t mean you have to stop acting like a schoolboy every once in a while.

© Copyright Michael Grimes 2015


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About thedailygrime

At that awkward age - too young to be a grumpy old man, but just acerbic and downtrodden enough to have an opinion. Read it here.

One response to “It’s A Blast – How The Antics Of An Insane Old Colonel Have Helped To Keep Me Young At Heart”

  1. Barrie Shepherd says :

    I too attended one of the Nottingham University orientations in 1969/ or 1970 I think. (was it sponsored by British Gas?) Like you I also found the Bars!

    One of the lectures was “Introduction to Computers” where the University mainframe was used, via a teletype terminal, to work out what day of the week any given date fell on (something you can probably do with an App now!)

    I well remember “It’s a Blast” it made a great impression. The recorded version on YouTube seems to be somewhat later (and in the US) as you can hear cell phone hash on the audio occasionally (cell phones were not even thought about in 1969!) and it has more Health & Safety considerations applied than I remember – like in disposing of the liquid Nitrogen towards the end the flask was emptied towards the audience rather than across the bench. In the musket through plywood demonstration he did two firings, one with commercial powder and one with his own mixture (which went though a few more sheets of plywood).

    I still am a kid when fireworks are around and, having lived for a number of years overlooking Sydney Harbour, have seen some wonderful pyrotechnic displays. But there is nothing quite as thrilling as “lighting the blue touch paper” yourself!

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