Let us begin with The Swedish Chemist Shop Joke:
A man walks into a chemist shop in Stockholm, goes up to the assistant and asks, “Good morning, I wish to buy some deodorant”
“Ball or aerosol?”
“Neither. I want it for my armpits.”
The street where we lived always seemed to be in a state of flux. Some of the houses were owned by British Airways, and they rented them out to staff to keep them local. Most of the time, however, there were always a few left empty, and this gave us the chance to do what thirteen year old kids loved to do: doss around on someone else’s property.
We were a bit of a terrible foursome. Me, my bruv, neighbours John and Matt. We’d all been told by our parents to a) stay away from those empty houses. They belong to somebody and they’ll be cross; and b) never play with fire. Slready this tale has an air of inevitability to it.
Matt’s garage was a bit of a treasure trove. He’d been the last to move into the estate, and his parents had filled the garage with boxes of stuff from their previous place in London. Matt’s dad was a do-it-yourself freak years before it became fashionable to knock your house about until it screamed for mercy, and one of these boxes was filled with aerosol cans of paint stripper and all kinds of dodgy chemicals with great big red warning signs on the side. Naturally, we’d got to them before he did.
One of us had seen a James Bond film where Sean Connery kills a deadly snake with a blast from an aerosol can sprayed over a lit cigar. It produced a flame several feet long and looked dead cool. We had the goods. We had to try it.
The garden at number twenty-seven was ideal. It was a corner plot in a dead end, so none of the other houses overlooked it. And it had been empty for months. We didn’t have cigars, but we had a cigarette lighter “liberated” from an ashtray at the village hall. But first things first - it was dark and getting cold, so we lit a nice big bonfire from scrap wood and warmed our bones.
Then it was time. Matt flipped the lighter on, and John hit the button on the first can.There was a loud “PHWOOOOOUM!” and a sheet of flame shot out a good five feet, singing Matt’s hair and eyebrows. Wow. We all had a go, and with expert manipulation of the flame and using a roled up nerwspaper instead of the fag lighter, we found we could have four flames on the go at once.
It wasn’t before the first cries of “Achtung Flammenwerfer English Pig Dog!” were heard and attempts were made to set fire to each others arses. Thankfully, noone was turned into a human torch, more by luck than judgement.
Equally impressive was finding that one of the tins contained some kind of foam. We could spray a message on the wall and set fire to it before it evaporated. Three of us were rolling on the ground in hysterics, watching through tears of laughter as Matt set fire to the word “FUCK” in six foot high letters.
By this time, we were getting through aerosol cans at an alarming rate, and our stash of a dozen cans of highly flammable paint stripper was running out fast. What I didn’t know was then as each one ran out, Matt was chucking them onto the roaring bonfire to be devoured by the flames.
The label on each and every one of these cans reads: “WARNING! Pressurised contents. Do not puncture or burn, even when empty”. And we were about to find out why.
BOOOOOOMPH!!!!!!!! The first can exploded in a ball of flame and shot out of the fire like a rocket, missing my head by inches and clattering onto the nearby garage roof.
BLAM! WOOOMPH!!!! BOOOOOOMPHA!!!! One by one the cans went off, and we were literally running for our lives. Smouldering metal and plastic was raining down around us as we hit the street, meeting our neighbours running the other way to find out what the bloody hell was going on. The two elderly lesbians at number forty were convinced it was the Blitz all over again, while the ex-copper three doors down from me was convinced it was the IRA.
Our parents, however, knew the long-and-the-short of it, as we were betrayed by our guilty faces and the unused aerosols still in our hands. My dad dragged us home with the classic “small boy side-hair tweak” (extremely painful), and once again we were sent to our rooms, grounded and banned from doing anything exciting or interesting, ever.
Two weeks later, buoyed with the joys of throwing dangerous things onto bonfires, we threw a half-full five litre oil can onto a raging conflagration on some local wasteground and didn’t hang around for the end result. That one made the local paper.