Brian Duncan Shaw was a Beestonian who lived an amazing life that involved the trenches of the Somme, a German Prisoner of War camp, exploding pianos and wrangling pistols and rifles on stage. We meet his biographer, Claire Wilkes.
A biographer has an immensely difficult task: how do you define a life within the covers of a book? When your subject lives past 100, living in all but the final days of the 20th century, that’s an even more staggering task.
“It took me about 18 years” Claire Wilkes, a former Beestonian, scientist and writer explains “I didn’t really expect it to be quite so long.” We’re discussing her book Framed By A Smoking Gun, a brilliantly written look at the life of Brian Duncan (BD) Shaw, the Ilkeston born, Beeston residing Professor whose famous ‘Explosives Lecture’ left its inspiring mark on countless audiences over the years around the world (and on the telly) as indelibly as the scorch marks on his workbench.
Born in Ilkeston, Shaw’s life was eventful. “Even considering he lived as long as he did, it’s hard to imagine how he did so much” Claire explains. A born experimenter, tinkering with chemicals from an early age, Shaw didn’t chart the usual path to a professorship, with the First World War crashing in shortly before an apprenticeship with Boots. His war was a lively one, serving at Passchendaele, the Somme and Cambrai: his bravery saw him awarded the Military Medal in the latter, and his keen eye and steady hand saw him become a celebrated sniper.
His academic career took off in the inter-war period, and he moved to Queens Road in Beeston, where he would live for the rest of his long life. But on Hitler’s invasion of Poland he found himself once again in France, this time with the Sherwood Foresters as part of the British Expeditionary Force, where on being left behind after the Dunkirk retreat, was eventually captured and served out the war as a POW.
Returning home, his fondness for explosives saw him continue to develop the presentation for which he would become famous: the ‘Explosives Lecture’, where, in front of an audience ‘where the first arrivals would take the back seats’. Chemistry was brought to life with a literal bang, the long tradition of public scientific demonstration finding its way onto TV – a huge hit on the BBC’s Horizon – and while he would retire from lecturing his public demonstrations would tour the country, and further afield.
In late 1999, aged 101, Professor BD Shaw died, narrowly missing his target to live in three centuries. A chance conversation shortly after his passing between our local YouTube hero Professor Martin Poliakoff and Wilkes set her off to chart a life. It could have been easy: a close friend and colleague had already made a decent attempt to document Shaw’s life, with lots of primary source material to draw from.
Yet here was a subject that defied easy interpretation: a soldier in the trenches of the First World War, a POW in the Second. A married man who nevertheless lived apart from his wife, and had to conduct a long term relationship with his true love away from any public glare. A man who revelled in spectacle, but with a deep seam of modesty about him.
Wilkes places his life in context of the 20th Century, while avoiding clichè and embracing the sometimes paradoxical nuance: “What surprised me” Wilkes explained “Is his continued enthusiasm for soldiering, after he had lost so much and been through so much in the First World War. His comment that ‘There is romance in war as well as horror and degradation’ doesn’t sit so well with us today, but…he was a man of the twentieth century, as well as having a thirst for adventure.”
There are fascinating chapters on successful defence of the anarchistic terrorist group The Angry Brigade in the 70’s, and the subsequent petty vindictiveness of the state to close him down. Wilkes charts his progress to be one of the UK’s best marksmen…and his championing of women to be involved in what was a very male-dominated sport, and the post-retirement decades, where he took his lecture around the UK and beyond are bought to vivid life the banal minutiae of the practical: how he would ask for a hot water bottle to be filled at the end of a lecture so he could drive home in his unheated car with some degree of comfort.
Beeston has been graced by many great scientists: we’ve written here before about another explosives expert, Professor Dan Eley, who was the last remaining witness to the Chilwell Explosion (the blast threw him out of his high chair -he was just four at the time, and before his death 97 years later would go onto pioneer explosives research that saved countless lives from the fate suffered by so many that day in 1918), and, of course, Sir Professor Martin Poliakoff, (who writes a heartfelt and humorous prologue to his late friend and colleague in the book). They all did ‘do their thing’ in bringing science to the public with excellent innovation and an evangelism towards their subject that is contagious in its zest. That excellence soaks through this book, in its subject and from its author.
Give it a read
Will Wilkes devote another 18 years to a single subject? ‘Well, I’m not sure anyone really has had a life like his, so it’s probably not likely!”.