Pluck

Reading Gunpowder and Glory: The Explosive Life of Frank Brock OBE by Harry Smee and Henry Macrory for the Spectator, 21 March 2020

Early one morning in October 1874, a barge carrying three barrels of benzoline and five tons of gunpowder blew up in the Regent’s Canal, close to London Zoo. The crew of three were killed outright, scores of houses were badly damaged, the explosion could be heard 25 miles away, and “dead fish rained from the sky in the West End.”

This is a book about the weird, if obvious, intersection between firework manufacture and warfare. It is, ostensibly, the biography of a hero of the First World War, Frank Brock. And if it were the work of more ambitious literary hands, Brock would have been all you got. His heritage, his school adventures, his international career as a showman, his inventions, his war work, his violent death. Enough for a whole book, surely?

But Gunpowder and Glory is not a “literary” work, by which I mean it is neither self-conscious nor overwrought. Instead Henry Macrory (who anyway has already proved his literary chops with his 2018 biography of the swindler Whitaker Wright) has opted for what looks like a very light touch here, assembling and ordering the anecdotes and reflections of Frank Brock’s grandson Harry Smee about his family, their business as pyrotechnical artists, and, finally, about Frank, his illustrious forebear.

I suspect a lot of sweat went into such artlessness, and it’s paid off, creating a book that reads like fascinating dinner conversation. Reading its best passages, I felt I was discovering Brock the way Harry had as a child, looking into his mother’s “ancient oak chests filled with papers, medals, newspapers, books, photographs, an Intelligence-issue knuckleduster and pieces of Zeppelin and Zeppelin bomb shrapnel.”

For eight generations, the Brock family produced pyrotechnic spectaculars of a unique kind. Typical set piece displays in the eighteenth century included “Jupiter discharging lightning and thunder, Two gladiators combating with fire and sword, and Neptune finely carv’d seated in his chair, drawn by two sea horses on fire-wheels, spearing a dolphin.”

Come the twentieth century, Brock’s shows were a signature of Empire. It would take a write like Thomas Pynchon to do full justice to “a sixty foot-high mechanical depiction of the Victorian music-hall performer, Lottie Collins, singing the chorus of her famous song ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ and giving a spirited kick of an automated leg each time the word ‘boom’ rang out.”

Frank was a Dulwich College boy, and one of that generation lost to the slaughter of the Great War. A spy and an inventor — James Bond and Q in one — he applied his inherited chemical and pyrotechnical genius to the war effort — by making a chemical weapon. It wasn’t any good, though: Jellite, developed during the summer of 1915 and named after its jelly-like consistency during manufacture, proved insufficiently lethal.

On such turns of chance do reputations depend, since we remember Frank Brock for his many less problematic inventions. Dover flares burned for seven and a half minutes
and lit up an area of three miles radius, as Winston Churchill put it, “as bright as Piccadilly”. U boats, diving to avoid these lights, encountered mines. Frank’s artificial fogs, hardly bettered since, concealed whole British fleets, entire Allied battle lines.

Then there are his incendiary bullets.

At the time of the Great War a decent Zeppelin could climb to 20,000 feet, travel at 47 mph for more than 1,000 miles, and stay aloft for 36 hours. Smee and Mcrory are well within their rights to call them “the stealth bombers of their time”.

Brock’s bullets tore them out of the sky. Sir William Pope, Brock’s advisor, and a professor of chemistry at Cambridge University, explained: “You need to imagine a bullet proceeding at several thousand feet a second, and firing as it passes through a piece of fabric which is no thicker than a pocket handkerchief.” All to rupture a gigantic sac of hydrogen sufficiently to make the gas explode. (Much less easy than you think; the Hindenburg only crashed because its entire outer envelope was set on fire.)

Frank died in an assault on the mole at Zeebrugge in 1918. He shouldn’t have been there. He should have been in a lab somewhere, cooking up another bullet, another light, another poison gas. Today, he surely would be suitably contained, his efforts efficiently channeled, his spirit carefully and surgically broken.

Frank lived at a time when it was possible — and men, at any rate, were encouraged — to be more than one thing. That this heroic idea overreached itself — that rugby field and school chemistry lab both dissolved seamlessly into the Somme — needs no rehearsing.

Still, we have lost something. When Frank went to school there was a bookstall near the station which sold “a magazine called Pluck, containing ‘the daring deeds of plucky sailors, plucky soldiers, plucky firemen, plucky explorers, plucky detectives, plucky railwaymen, plucky boys and plucky girls and all sorts of conditions of British heroes’.”

Frank was a boy moulded thus, and sneer as much as you want, we will not see his like again.

 

Albert Hofmann vs The West

New Scientist sent me down the LSD rabbit-hole recently in pursuit of its discoverer, Albert Hofmann. The subs did a cracking job as usual; but here’s the  unwound version for those who have the time.

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Image swiped from Leonard Freed/Magnum

A cloud of scorn fogs our understanding of LSD. It is justified. Those who fear The Man may remember the murderous human experiments conducted for the CIA’s MK-Ultra programme. Those who deplore social breakdown will recall Timothy Leary’s plan for young Americans to “turn on, tune in, drop out” – fuelled by his insouciant purchase order, in 1963, for one million doses of LSD and 2.5 million doses of psilocybine.

What of the substance itself, and the Swiss chemist who invented it, Albert Hofmann? In March this year, Hofmann’s own memoir, LSD: my problem child, was published by the Beckley Foundation Press in association with the OUP, in a new translation by Jonathan Ott. At once stiff as a board and lush as a jungle, Ott’s translation neatly captures the romance of Hofmann’s discovery. LSD provides the capstone for  a grand European project to explore the psyche, begun by Goethe, developed by Purkinje and Mach,  von Helmholtz and Exner, and obliterated by the rise of National Socialism in Germany. LSD is also the foundation of modern popular culture, inspiring everything from the personal computer to Gaia theory. For this reason, all writings about LSD are unavoidably – often comically – anachronistic. Whole pages of Hofmann’s own, deeply felt and beautifully written memoir could be dropped wholesale into a Thomas Pynchon novel with no-one any the wiser.

In an attempt to bring the LSD story up to date in time for the seventieth anniversary of its discovery,  two of Hoffman’s close acquaintances, Dieter Hagenbach and Lucius Werthmüller, have assembled a copiously illustrated volume of stories, biographies, memoirs and reflections. Mystic Chemist is the sort of mess you get when your aspiration gets ahead of your writing time. Its by-the-numbers approach contains spadefuls of trivia of the  “Mexico is the fifth largest country on the American continent” variety. It is horrible. It is also touching, sad and angry. And – so long as it’s not the first book a reader picks up about LSD – it is pretty much indispensable.

LSD is a psychiatric and medical tool. Not a medicine, since it tends to reinforce a person’s prevailing mood. Not a recreational substance: it triggers a psychosis, still poorly understood, that exposes to consciousness, and temporarily deconstructs, the processes by which a self maintains itself. Psychedelics were used as a spiritual aid for millennia, before falling as collateral damage in the West’s “war on drugs”. But regret at such a profound cultural loss cannot but be tempered by the thought that Greece, powered by the Eleusinian mysteries, still succumbed to decline, and Mexico, in its psilocybine haze, is a violent and impoverished political backwater. LSD does not harm people; nor does it make humanity evolve. The fault is not in LSD but in ourselves, says Hofmann: in “hypermaterialism, alienation from Nature through industrialisation and increasing urbanisation, lack of satisfaction with professional employment in an increasingly mechanised, lifeless, workaday world, ennui and purposelessness in a wealthy, oversaturated society, and the utter lack of a religious, nurturing, and meaningful philosophical foundation for life.”