Harry Turner's Episodes of Personal History
Early Memories #3    | HISTORY Page | Obituary Page |

3. 1929 – The Year of the Keybangers

It were a luvly big key... a real smasher, at least three inches long.
   --Eh, wheer did yer get that from then? asks Fatty Ward, deep envy in his voice.
   Cliff smiles a knowing smile and carefully measures out the yellow powder, pours it carefully into the hollow shank of the key and prods it down firmly with a wire nail. We get all worked up, just watching him get ready. Boozer warns "don't overdo it" which maybe tempts Cliff to tip in a bit more mixture than he'd intended.
   --That'll do fine, he crows, this bang'll blow yer bloody boots off!
   He rams the nail home and gives the loaded assembly a trial whirl.
   --Reet then. Stand back!
   We retreat apprehensively to the gutter to give him all the room he needs. He stands poised, arm outstretched, the key swinging at the end of the string.
   I count: wun... two... THREE !
   Cliff wheels round smartly, the key flying in a fierce arc and clouting the wall.

We reel back deafened. Cliff, dazed, stares flabbergasted at his shattered key. While the echoes still racket round Mawson Street, before even startled dogs begin to bark, a front door flies open and a nowty Pa McGinty charges out, taking advantage of our momentary confusion, clobbering us round the lug-holes with a smartly wielded rolled-up newspaper. We scarper down the back entry, pursued by ear-searing threats about what he'll do to us young buggers if he catches us round there again...

Key-banging is all the rage this year. No one remembers when it started or who had the idea fust. One day we were doing all the usual boring things, the next everywun were scrabbling round in search of old keys, the sort with a hollow shank. And the local chemists did a brisk trade as kids queued to hand over their pocket money for small bags of sulphur and potassium chlorate.

The technique of key-banging is simple. One end of a piece of string is tied to the ring of the key, and t'other end fastened under the head of a round wire nail that slides into the key. The chemicals are mixed according to some preferred and closely-guarded secret formula, handed down by generations of key-bangers.

A small amount of the mixture is poked into the key shank, the nail pushed firmly into the key, and the string grasped so that the assembly can be freely whirled over your head. When everyone in the gang has their keys primed, you find a brick wall--ideally the corner of a house, where you have a clear view, both ways, of any annoyed adults likely to appear--and take it in turn, standing there, to swing your key and whack it agin the wall, so that the impact explodes the mixture with a satisfying crack!

The winner isn't allus the wun making the loudest bang: anywun who damages their key when they have a go, is disqualified. It needs a certain expertise both in mixing the charge and careful loading to keep your key intact yet get an explosion loud enuff to put yer amongst t'champions.

Repeated shocks eventually do in a favourite key, so there's a steady demand for replacements. We search through attics and cellars at home, offer to clear away neighbour's junk on the off-chance of a hoard of old keys turning up, chase the pony-and-truck of every passing scrap-metal collector and rag-bone merchant, haunt the garage workshop at the end of Mawson Street. We must have driven the neighbourhood barmy while t'craze lasted.

But reaction sets in. Soon we are nagged by us mums when complaints filter through from beseiged inhabitants of corner houses. Then we are nagged at school assemblies; dire warnings are issued, scary tales spread of exploding keys and injured swingers. Not that we let that put us off. The rot really sets in when the local chemists are got at. We call in, hoping to wheedle supplies from t'young lass behind counter, and the boss appears, demanding names and addresses as we turn tail and hop it.

Soon, even carefully hoarded chemicals run out... the supply of keys dries up. The craze dies. But just cracking conkers seems a dead tame pursuit after that. So if, by any chance, you say you've never seen an old-fashioned key of the sort we prized in them days, 'appen it's because we blew 'em all up. ■

© Harry Turner, May 1997

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