For a while during my childhood years I became obsessed with fire. I'm not quite sure if I could have been referred to as a pyromaniac or not, but fire certainly excited me a lot. The problem (although I did not see it as a problem) started sometime around the summer of 1976. Our family, that is my dad, my mum, my sister and I, moved from the small hamlet of Osbaldeston, in the winter of this year to the relative metropolis of Helmshore (actually a village). Here I fell in with some bad lads and my love of fire was kindled.
As many British people of my age and older will remember, the summer of 1976 was a total heatwave. Week after week of blistering sun, water bans, communal standpipes, and general nationwide euphoria, as all previous temperature records were smashed. For my sister and I, the heatwave meant long days sat on the concrete foundations of my dad's new garage, eating egg sandwiches, followed by home made ice cream or Vimto tub lollies. The summer seemed to go on for an eternity, and of course, I soon became bored with the confines of the concrete foundations and wanted to explore further a field. This is when Rossendale golf course became my life.
At first, my love for my new world was all very innocent. I would spend days upon end searching for wayward golf balls. This was all good and well for a while, until my new evil playmates decided that they wanted to experience pleasures of a more macabre nature. Unfortunately for me (and the frogs and newts), this hobby involved disemboweling small reptiles and amphibians. Of course, this serial killer in the making, kind of behaviour, repulsed me immensely. However, any show of distaste that I may have displayed was either met by a smack in the mouth or an attempt at ramming a newt down my throat (kids are such evil little bastards).
As the summer progressed their behaviour regressed. Before long they were torturing small animals by employment of more and more elaborate and despicable methods. These tortures ranged from burning newts eyeballs by raising a magnifying glass to the blazing sun, to pulling frogs legs as far apart as they would go until they split the poor creature in half. Being a lover of all animals, this was a torrid time for me, although being only seven years of age at the time, I was too petrified to de-friend my crazed companions.
Then, one day, they took it a step too far for even my seven year old self to take. My breaking point came when when they decided that shoving a straw up a frogs anus and blowing up it until the frog's body resembled an amphibian shaped balloon, was an ok thing to do. Actually, this is not quite the truth. My breaking point came when they tried to force me to inflate my own frog. Any attempts that I made at faking this action resulted in me having my arms rammed behind my back and my lips forced onto the straw. I was then used as a human foot pump, which functioned by the boys jumping on my back, and me expelling air (Oh to be a child again!).
Petrified for my seven year old life, I did the only thing that I could think of. I grabbed the matches that I had been administered as a torture device, and set fire to the dry grass around me, which due to the heatwave, immediately became an inferno. The fire spread like.....well wildfire actually and before you knew it, we all had to run for our lives.
The net result of my actions that day were as follows. The golf course went up like Hiroshima, the fire brigade arrived en masse, my evil buddies decided that I was cool enough to stop bullying for a while and the torture of small animals ceased, as it was decided that it was far more cool to set fire to anything that would burn. This included the golf course, the moors, rubbish bins, skips and for our grand finale, a small garage that we happened to be using as a den at the time. A story which I will further elaborate on.
The garages, as they were so articulately known, were round the back of my "friends" house. My own house was only a street away. It's all a little hazy now, but I think that this may even have been a few years after I first discovered that fire could save me from having to torture small animals (perhaps 1978). However long this period was, there had been a lot of fires during this time and we had become the enemies of the local fire brigade. It was only a matter of time before something was going go horribly wrong.
We made one of the garages into our den. This garage just happened to be the one that was closest to the nearest house. Our den was constructed from asbestos and wood and filled with tins of paint and other suspicious chemicals, it is only by the grace of god that we managed to cause as little damage as it turned out we did. In hindsight, the whole estate could easily have gone up.
Our den was accessed from a large hole that we kicked into the asbestos side panelling, and which was shielded from view by the garage next to it. Inside the den we installed some make shift seating, and a small table. It smelled terrible, a dreadful mix of damp and chemicals. But when you are nine years old, a den of such calibre is not to be shunned. That is, until a month or so later when we got bored of it and decided to torch the place whilst we were still in it.
How we ever got out of the den alive is a mystery to me. We spent ten minutes or so dowsing the inside with any chemical that we could find and we stuffed large areas of the place with newspaper. Believe me, this baby was going to ignite. I can't remember which of us lit the touch paper, but I remember with great clarity the noise it made when it hit the chemically soaked interior. A gigantic "WHOOOOSHHHH" filled the den, as a fireball engulfed it in seconds.
Of course, I was the last one to exit our den, and it is a great miracle that I made it out at all, as the intense heat raged behind me. By the time my body was through the hole and I was making my way up the path to my mates garden, the other two were long gone. It was at this point that two key actions occurred, actions that were to later incriminate me. Firstly, I fell on my face and ripped a great gouge in my cheek, and secondly, Mr Riley, a keen birdwatcher took a photo of me as I picked myself up during my hasty retreat.
By the time I reached my house, huge flames were dominating the skyline. In the distance the sirens of the emergency services were penetrating the afternoon silence of rural England. Whilst in the foreground, gigantic explosions were ripping through the atmosphere, as the tins of paint and chemicals ignited. Much to the delight of the local kids and to the dismay of the local house owners who feared that they wouldn't have anywhere to sleep that night.
A large crowd had already emerged from the surrounding houses. This included my poor mum, who was frantic with worry, in her assumption that I had something to do with the current scenes of chaos. Her face became a picture of delight when she eventually spotted me through the crowd of spectators. Although her delight subsided slightly, a few minutes later when a fireman became more than a little curious about my facial injury. Nothing a few lies didn't sort out, or so I thought.
How I ever thought that we were going to get away with this, I'll never know. The innocence of childhood is such a beautiful thing. I mean, let's look at the evidence. A garage explodes in the place that we are known to play everyday and a child emerges from the carnage with a gouge out of his face and his every pore stinking of fire. Needless to say, a few days later an officer from the fire brigade came knocking at our door.
I had been forewarned that this was going to happen. Rumour had it, that Mr Riley the birdwatcher, had photographic evidence of me emerging from the burning garage. Apparently he just happened to be photographing birds at the back of his house at the time. In hindsight, I am not sure if I believe this though, I suspect that he may have been calling our bluff. Whether I believed Mr Riley's photo evidence or not, I certainly believed that the fire officer would come knocking on my door. And I had prepared my speech.