Derek Mcintosh Bates, demolition engineer: born Crewe, Cheshire 5 February 1923: married 1946 Maud Lightfoot (one son, three daughters); died Crewe 1 September 2006.
Blaster Bates never expected to become a celebrity: he was a demolition expert whose stories amused his friends and then in the Sixties and Seventies came to the attention of a wider public. He could fill theatres, particularly in the North-West, with his one-man shows, but, through it all, he kept his demolition business going and in so doing gathered even more adventures for his records and stage shows.
He was born Derek Bates in Cheshire in 1923. His apprenticeship with Rolls-Royce in Crewe was interrupted by Second World War service. He flew bombers for the RAF and became a specialist in bomb disposal. He was intrigued by this work and planned to use his knowledge in peacetime.
In 1946, he started his own demolition business in Elworth; his van had the word of warning "Blasting" on the back and the company's slogan was "I'll blast anything". He changed the local landscape by demolishing over 500 tall chimney-stacks. In 1963, Bates blasted through rock to help build the M6. When he worked on the Oulton Park racing circuit, he had to contend with a courting couple in the grass and from this came his action-packed anecdote "The Naming of Knicker Brook". Everyone had great faith in what he was doing: he once blew up the underground vaults of a bank whilst business continued at ground level.
Even though Bates might walk around with explosives in his pockets, he was never seriously injured. He once hung by his fingertips at the top of a quarry whilst the fuses burned below, but was rescued in the nick of time. On another occasion, he had just laid explosives in a lake when the outboard motor on his boat stalled. He recalled that he "rowed away with a determination that would have won the Boat Race".
As a robust six-footer, Bates looked the part and he became well known as a raconteur at rotary clubs, where his regional accent and colourful language added to the amusement. Soon he was talking about the likes of Big Mick from Connemara on television chat shows including Parkinson. Asked how he might land a particular chimney-stack neatly into a confined space, he replied, "I've got a touch like a midwife." He had the repartee of a Northern comedian:
I've brought some of the gelignite with me. You'll notice it is like marzipan. Just the job for the mother-in-law's birthday cake. You get her to light the candle and you piddle off out quick.
His tale about the time he was hired to clear out a farm's septic tank contained some vivid descriptions:
Twelve seconds later, four and a half thousand tons of effluent leapt into the air. It climbed into the sky and, at 300 feet, it mushroomed out, and a shaft of sunlight hit it. You could see all the colours of the starling's wing, the greens and the golds and the browns, light and dark, and a lot of bottle-green in it.
Bates made a series of live albums about "The Explosive Exploits of Blaster Bates". The first volume, Laughter With a Bang (1967), recorded at the Congleton Round Table, was a huge seller and 1001 Gelignites (1968), TNT for Two (1969), Watch Out for the Bits (1971), Lift-Off (1973), Gelly Baby (1975), Blastermind (1980) and Hunting and Shooting (1984) followed. Although his albums and shows contained warnings about language, it was rarely worse than "bugger" or "bullshit".
Bates won trophies for shooting and rallying and would participate in Wall of Death stunts. To improve his chances on a hill climb, he would put home-made rockets on the side of his motorcycle. He undertook charity work and served as a special constable with Cheshire Police from 1968 to 1980. "He was an hilarious character and he enjoyed being what is called a community constable today," recalls Joe Roper, a former policeman who worked with him:
He used to take a stick of gelignite to his talks and he would light the fuse when he began. He would be telling his anecdotes and the fuse would be
getting shorter and shorter. When there was only a very small amount left, he would put it out. No one, of course, would be allowed to do that today.
In a sense, Bates set the path for the exploits of Fred Dibnah, but Bates's humour was coarser. In 2001, he had a stroke, but was able to continue with speaking engagements. He enjoyed his work, and he enjoyed talking about it, and said he was always sorry that he never got the call for the big one - Nelson's Column.
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