Tuesday, January 07, 2003


You’ve got to hand it to my teachers. They always tried to innovate and make our school experience different from other run-of-the-mill schools. OK, in the case of the luscious, pouting Miss Shagwell, it basically involved wearing as little as possible and sitting on her desk with her legs apart, but you get the idea.

In the science labs, they really wanted to do things differently from the traditional and frankly boring learning-by-rote that was a curse on the modern system. So they went mental and abandoned the tried-and-test route of the core sciences Biology, Chemistry and Physics in favour of a hotch-potch of half-baked ideas called “Integrated Sciences”.

We wasted a lot of time drawing leaves, “identifying patterns”, comparing colours of stuff in test tubes and heating up stuff that didn’t do anything terribly exciting, while kids at other schools were doing things the old-fashioned way. And the right way, as it turned out. Our entire course was, I found out far too late, a load of wanky bollocks.

Warning: Scary at Work
Warning: Scary at Work

So when I reached college to study for my A-levels, it transpired that I’d spent the last five years of my life doing absolutely nothing; and of chemistry in particular, I knew precisely squat. I swiftly came to the conclusion that anything above a fail grade would be a triumph. Dr Lawson knew that I was a kill-or-cure, giving me a list of books which stacked on top of each other was about three feet tall. They contained words like “valences”, “ionization” and “dielectric constant”. I was doomed.

For the next two years Dr Lawson crammed seven years worth of knowledge into my head, until the blood came out of my ears. I knew absolutely nothing about the theory of chemistry, and struggled with all the simple stuff my fellow students took for granted. Thankfully though, when it came to practical work, thanks to my teenage years of setting fire to things, I found I had a natural talent, and that would ultimately save me from failing the course.

It all hinged on the final A-Level exam in June of 1984. The written paper, as I suspected, had been an utter nightmare, but I managed to bullshit my way through it and hopefully get a grade. Any grade. I wasn’t going to be particular. Anything higher than an F would be just dandy.

Then came the practical. We were given quantities of chemicals we were asked to identify, find atomic weights, do strange measurements with mass spectrometers and arcane stuff that may or may not turn lead into gold.

Silently, grimly, we set to work. Add a bit of acid, test for fumes. Heat it up, check for colour changes. All well-drilled and things were going well. Yeah right.

Things would have been absolutely peachy if I hadn’t tried to sneak a peak at Joanne Sutter’s arse at a crucial moment. I was heating up some almost random concoction of dangerous chemicals over the blue heat of a bunsen burner. Just one little peak. Just one little twitch of the hand at the wrong moment. Excuse: I was eighteen years old. Girl’s arses were important then. (Disclaimer: link goes to Vinny Jones's arse. Sorry.)


Flames shot out of my test tube and spread over the bench in a way you only ever see when a car blows up in an action movie. A great gobbet of burning goo fired out of the end, arced through the air and hit Dr Lawson squarely on the back.

His lab coat was now on fire.

Dilemma. This was an exam, on which the futures of a dozen young people depended. You’re not supposed to speak. So is it the done thing to tell the invigilator that you’ve just set him on fire?

With smoke and eerie green flames now wafting up his back to his shirt collar, I thought I’d better risk it.

“Errr... Dr Lawson? Fire?”

He sprung into action, grabbing the lab’s fire blanket and dousing the flames that were playing across the workbench. My answer paper had a lovely antique-style burnt fringe to it, which would certainly add some gritty realism for the examiner.

“No sir, it’s you”

The flames were right up his back and you could smell singed hair. If he didn’t know he was on fire by know, he must be made out of asbestos.

At last, he twigged, ripped off his lab coat and we took turns stamping on it. The green sticky stuff got stuck to his Hush Puppies, and carried on relentlessly burning, melting the sole of his shoes as he finally beat the flames out.

There was a stunned silence as everybody else turned and stared at the tableau unfolding in front of them. Dr Lawson stood there, a plume of smoke rising from his head.

“Well don’t just stand there,” he said in his broad Northern tones “You’ve got an exam to pass.”

“Burns easily with green flame,” I wrote. “May be Copper based.”

In the middle of August, my grades flopped onto my doormat. Mathematics: D. Physics: D. Chemistry: E. Result! By today’s lax standards, those would equate to straight As and I would have made it to Cambridge to chum it up with Stephen Hawking. That’s what I call a lucky escape.

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