The day I went to fetch the acids


There's a story I sometimes tell, that illustrates how times have changed since we entered the Age known as 'The War on Terror', a feeble scared time when people are encouraged by propaganda to check their own actions constantly, lest they be engaged in something accidentally subversive. And certain activities are no longer deemed the actions of ordinary upstanding citizens, and certain books you haven't read but still have in a bag to go to the charity shop may be enough to put you away.

I was about 14, it was in the 70s, a gentle innocent time of failed hopes of parents seeking refuge in a mere two channels on the telly (BBC 2, though possessed, could not be watched, it was a class thing), a time of a bath always on a Friday before 'The Virginian' and being allowed to stay up late to watch 'The Invaders'. A time of not being able to figure out the huge white ball in 'The Prisoner'. A time when one never realised bread also came unsliced.

I was into chemistry and had converted the shed into a laboratory. Put up shelves and lined them with bottle after bottle of chemicals I'd bought mail-order from a laboratory supplier in Birmingham. The chemicals and glassware would arrive in big boxes packed in shredded paper 'straw'. Even the red phosphorus had come through the post. I loved taking the top off and smelling it, there was something rich and inviting about that smell, a smell of seductive danger, and its beautiful crumbly texture, it was like chemical truffles. Even the antimony dust was delivered through the mail, which I later read Israel Regardie managed to poison himself with in one of his alchemical experiments.

These 'vigilant' days it would be hard to obtain these things, and if you tried your name would be flagged up on a database as a danger to society, you'd be seen either as a terrorist or running an LSD factory. Honest curiosity about the elements of the Earth and how they combine is no longer considered a reasonable pursuit for a private citizen. What normal person heats red-orange potassium dichromate crystals on a spoon over a burner in a shed? Would the explanation that 'I just love the way it flares up and makes ten times as much stuff and green' stand up in court? Would the strips of magnesium raise eyebrows? I saw an old battered child's chemistry set in an antiques arcade the other day, the copper sulphate tube still full, and thought, it has gone the way of the golliwog. Not that there was ever anything much in a shop-bought chemistry set.

But back to the innocent 70s, when you could plot to your heart's content, just for fun. My final box for stocking my lab arrived, minus certain items. A note in shaky old person's handwriting explained that I would have to come and collect them from the supplier, as they couldn't send the concentrated acids, concentrated ammonia, caustic soda, and the tub of phenol through the post. So I set off on my trek. Travelling to Birmingham on the train then seemed like something grown-ups did, it was an adventure involving a lot of responsibility. Buying the right ticket, having to make sure I was on the right train, all those platforms. I felt easily out of my depth. This was underscored by my mother's nagging to ensure I had the correct money for the bus and my AtoZ of Birmingham. Never once did she seem at all concerned I was going to be bringing back about a gallon of stuff that could burn a hole through the train carriage floor and result in evacuation if the concentrated ammonia bottle smashed in a confined space. Well, I was careful not to mention such details. Though, oddly enough, I'm not sure it crossed my mind a great deal either. I knew what I was doing. I was just going to get some things. I told my parents it was important, I needed this stuff because I was going to be a forensic scientist when I grew up. Mum gave me her best shopping bag to put the bottles in.

It was a grey overcast day when I arrived in Birmingham. I eventually found the place in the back streets, great looming industrial chimneys, dirty walls, rats scampering by bins. It seemed to be some kind of warehouse, the only entrance was up an iron fire-escape upon which moss was growing, vivid green in the drizzle. I walked up the long and slippery iron staircase and into a small room with a seat and a serving counter in the wall. Behind I could see a cornucopia of chemical delights, long and wide shelves stacked with bottles and equipment. I dinged the bell and a very old man came to see me.

'I've come to collect these things you couldn't send through the post,' I explained, handing him the note sent with my last order.

He took the pencil from behind his ear, licked the tip, and ticked them off. Then he went to fetch them.

'Is this your bag?' he said.

I unzipped mum's best shopping bag. He placed the bottles in one by one. They were litre bottles.

'That's the concentrated hydrochloric acid, this is the concentrated sulphuric acid…' Glass bottles. More followed, 'Concentrated nitric acid, concentrated acetic acid.' He crossed them off the list. Then he dragged over a ribbed amber-coloured bottle, 'Concentrated ammonia'. He placed it at the other end and plonked in the middle a tub of phenol and a plastic bottle of sodium hydroxide pellets.

He tugged on the handles of mum's best shopping bag, the glass bottles clanking together like pints of milk, and said, 'bit heavy, will you manage?'

'Yes,' I said, 'it'll be alright.' I wanted this stuff bad.

Then he zipped up the bag for me and in a moment of wonderful grandfatherly concern, that grows more ludicrous each time I think about it, he said:

'Now you be careful with those.'