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Chapter 9: The Blackhawk Society
Chapter written 1999 & last revised 2013
NOTES During all my time at QE I tried desperately to separate school from home.  For example, I always hid my school uniform from sight whenever I was at home, as a single glimpse of it poisoned and ruined whatever I might be doing that wasn't homework or lines.  Outside of school, to be seen by a master or prefect out of uniform, even in the holidays, was an offence of extreme gravity, said to result sometimes in a flogging by the headmaster.  (However, it was not as serious a crime as truancy, smoking or being seen in a pub - these offences incurred the ultimate penalty of expulsion, a fate generally regarded, to my bewilderment, as far worse than a flogging.  I suppose it was the wrath of their fathers the boys feared).
Pyrotechny was the only profession I consistently wanted to go in for, but the careers master at school just laughed and I hadn't a clue how to make enquiries about it. Fireworks remained a great passion.  The only book in the school library that at all interested me was a biography of the great Victorian firework maker H.O.Brock.  It contained many of his recipes, as they're called in the trade.  Mainly because of this I became interested in chemistry.  I started with a chemistry set.  They used to include the three ingredients for gunpowder in those days, but no doubt there's nothing inflammable or toxic in them these days.  With the addition of a commonly available weedkiller, it was easy enough to make a powerful percussion-triggered explosive forbidden even to firework makers.  The IRA used to use it.  However, although I successfully made little rockets, flares of various colours and 'cracklers' I never quite managed to produce a convincing bang.  It never seemed to occur to my very protective parents that there was anything wrong with their 13 year-old son making fireworks in his bedroom and testing them in the garden!  Before long I was buying firework-making chemicals in bulk, also some quite poisonous ones for other experiments.  You supposedly needed a licence for the use of the more dangerous of these chemicals, but they were obtained for me by the pharmacist in the High Street.  He always explained when handing them over that he was breaking any number of laws, so I'd better keep my mouth shut if I wanted the supply to continue.  I told just about everybody, but nothing happened.  Chemistry at school was something entirely different - it was all maths and totally incomprehensible.
Our firework displays every November 5th became more and more expensive and elaborately planned, but the biggest and best of all was ruined by a tiny incident which remains a strong and bitter memory to this day.  It was simply that when a small piece of burning debris seemed to be falling on me I instictively covered my head with my hands.  So what?  Well, I'd completely forgotten that my mother had forced me to wear my school cap because it was a cold night.  I'd managed to put it out of mind until this moment.  Now I had actually touched the foul thing in the middle of what should have been the greatest night of the year.  That silly little event still stands to me as the great symbol of joy instantly destroyed.  Weird!
Christmas continued to be a lavish affair, with a great surfeit of food and drink (which I was allowed to help myself to at will) and plenty of expensive presents for me.  This was possible for a factory hand (as were the mini-Christmases every Sunday) because council house rents were extremely low and my parents had no interest in having a car, telephone, fridge, washing machine or many clothes.  My grandmother had an old family saying: "Yer belly's yer main" which my parents heartily agreed with.  My mother and grandmother would slave away in the kitchen from early morning until late at night all over Christmas, while my father watched TV and I explored my latest acquisitions.  This was accepted as a perfectly natural state of affairs by the two women.  Christmas was a great and wonderful respite from school, although it always flashed by ridiculously quickly.
BBC4 did a very interesting new version of The Quatermass Experiment in 2005 and broadcast it live, just like the original. Television was important to me.  It was very amateurish and most of it was live, so actors sometimes forgot their lines, and there was not a hint of todays neurotic hard-sell razzle-dazzle.  This is what made it so attractive - you could imagine you were there, helping to cobble it together.  The item I remember most vividly is The Quatermass Experiment, a sci-fi serial that carried the warning "not suitable for children or persons of a nervous disposition".  It so terrified me that I had to watch it from behind the sofa and duck down whenever something really horrible was about to happen.  Holst's Mars the Bringer of War, which was the 'signature tune' still makes me shiver.  Variety artists were wonderfully whacky, like Joan Rhodes who specialised in tearing telephone directories in half (actually quite easy) and bending iron bars while wearing a bikini.  Then there was the Muscle Man who wore almost nothing and made every one of his huge muscles dance to music.  My grandmother was horrified, calling it "suggestive" (with a hard -gg-).  I also loved radio comedy shows, particularly Hancock's Half Hour and The Goon Show.  The latter particularly appealed to me because the surrealism of it came across as subversive in those days.  Rather oddly, my father was also a great fan of it, but my mother and grandmother just thought it silly - they didn't get it at all.
I still loved gardening, and grew a variety of vegetables in my little patch.  Theoretically, there was no time at all in term-time for gardening, firework-making, chemistry experiments and the newer hobbies of playing the recorder and harmonica (self-taught), but I made time on Sundays by refusing to devote the whole day to homework and lines.  Huge amounts of homework were set for the holidays, too, but I absolutely refused even to look at my satchel, let alone open it and take books out during the holidays.
I still had quite a lot to do with Walter during the holidays, especially the eight-week Summer break.  (There were now fewer day trips with my parents and grandmother to the seaside, and visits to air displays and science museums with my father had ceased by about 1955, as far as I remember).  Walter and I now increasingly saw ourselves as outsiders, or rather the rest of human society, by its stupidity and unreasonableness, placed itself outside of our cosy agreement about how things should really be.  We became the (theoretically) dreaded Blackhawk Society, dedicated to the overthrow of something called 'The System'.  I seem to remember drawing up some sort of manifesto and hiding it in a crevice in the wall of our secret headquarters - a derelict wartime Anderson shelter, at the bottom of the overgrown garden of the Wonfor family's council house.  As there were of course no windows and no electricity, we had to hold our meetings by candle light.  The smell of burning candles is still evocative of musty conspiracy and the promise of revolution.  I wonder when the manifesto was found, and by whom?
As far as I know, we made no attempt to recruit more members - the Blackhawk Society only ever consisted of Walter and myself.  I can remember three of the Blackhawk activities designed to bring down The System.  The first was the daubing of the word 'Blackhawk' on two or three walls around Barnet (one wall bore this fearful mark for many years).  The second was the damming of Dollis Brook at a secluded part of its course across fields, in order to flood the whole Dollis Valley.  The problem was that the stupid mud kept allowing itself to be washed away almost as fast as we could pile it up, so we never achieved more than the flooding of a few inches to either side of the brook, for a dozen yards upstream of the dam.
The third scheme would perhaps have been the one that the Stupes, as everyone who was not a Blackhawk was called, would have been a little worried about, had they known of it.  Actually, I'm not even sure that Walter ever realised it had gone beyond the theoretical stage.  It was the Great Bomb!  This was a large tin can packed tightly with an explosive formula given in a firework book (from Barnet library this time) as an example of a very dangerous illegal recipe.  This device stood on the window sill in my bedroom for several years, because I could never make up my mind as to the best target.  Why on earth I didn't think of school, I don't know.  I told my mother it was a bomb when she asked me, but this only resulted in the derision with which my mother habitually greeted my plans and ideas both then and for all but the last decade or so of her life.  Of course, it's possible that the bomb wouldn't have gone off, given the failure of all my experiments with explosive devices up to that point, but I think I realised that this one was different, for it had been very carefully made and my understanding of how to construct the whole thing, rather than just the chemistry side of it, had improved recently.  Perhaps this realisation that it might well work was a factor in my reluctance actually to plant it.  Anyway, I can't remember at all what happened to that unexploded bomb in the end!
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