*Content Warning – contains a smattering of swear words for effect.
As the son of a fireman, Bonfire Night has always made me nervous. I’ve always approached it with caution. It’s hard to enjoy a hotdog and pot of peas when your brain is awash with images of burnt hands, singed eyebrows and children wearing eye patches.
Just like the child of a vicar at Halloween, I’d been indoctrinated to fear Bonfire Night. No matter how I tried to relax and enjoy it, I knew I was potentially one moment away from being in one of those public information films you see at school. You remember those? The kid playing on the railway tracks who lost his legs, climbing a pylon to retrieve a kite and being blown into a field, or holding a sparkler the wrong way round. I think it was the same kid too. I remember thinking, how much bad luck can you have?! This is what schools did in the 80’s. If you left that classroom terrified of the world around you, then they’d done their job.
As the years have gone on, Bonfire Nights certainly have become safer. My father-in-law often regales us with Bonfire Nights in the early seventies, which sounded like complete free for alls. It was basically what happened if fly tippers and arsonists got together. People would just start gathering rubbish in the middle of the street during the weeks before. Old sofas, chairs, wardrobes, palettes, the odd couple of nannas, (it was cheaper than cremation) they all went on the pile. There it stood, like a wooden mountain, a council estate Wicker Man, dwarfing the houses around it.
When it was lit the heat from it was so intense it melted the tarmac. That’s when you know you’ve had a good Bonfire Night when even the road is left with war scars.
No one checked how safe it was, no one cared what was thrown in there, if it burnt then it was fine. Sure, you’d have to duck every so often, to avoid the occasional flying gas bottle, but it kept you on your toes. There’s no adrenalin rush like wondering if this Bonfire Night would be your last. Children would throw jacket potatoes in foil and the smallest member of the family would go in and retrieve them amongst the flames.
When I was a kid, we went to a display at the local pub. They had a massive field behind it, and in the week before the big lighting, me and my mates would all start rumours about what had been smuggled into the pile. They ranged from the victims of the world’s most seasonal serial killer, to World War II grenades. Every year the landlord would have to do an “official pet check” just before lighting it. Which usually meant him just screaming into the stack or clapping. There was always some clown who just after the flames started licking the bottom layer of timber, would let out a frightened “meeeooooowwww” which was funny for the first year.
There was no rope, no regulations and no health and safety. I still remember standing close to the fire, with the heat on my face, I’d stand there trying to be the last one of my mates to be able to tolerate the searing temperatures. You had to hold your nerve as your shell suit began to weld into your skin and your eyebrows were burnt off your face. I have always had a good pain threshold.
At school in the winter, we used to play a game where you’d try and be the last one to give in whilst sitting on the hot water pipe in the corner of the art room. You’d get about thirty seconds of grace before that heat would make its way through your boxer shorts and Farah trousers and then it was a battle of wills to see who would cave in first. I never did. I’d spent a full winter acclimatising by sticking a hot water bottle down my pyjama bottoms, this was nothing. The son of a fireman, resistance to heat must’ve been in the genes. I’m not sure what my parents did but I’m actually starting to wonder if my mum had asbestos nipples.
Those bonfire nights as a childhood were always so evocative. The smell of the bonfire, the pie and peas, the breath of the parents in the crowd who’d had a few too many pints and then realised that they were in a rural village and they’d driven there.
You’d stand in a circle and write your name in the dark with a sparkler. It was easy when you had a name like Scott, or David, but I often wonder what it must be like for posh children. I’m not sure you could manage to get “Tarquin – Charles – Mortimer – the third” out of the one sparkler. They were probably handed them, relay style, by the nanny.
It’s such an odd tradition when you think about it. Celebrating a famous failed act of terrorism. The gunpowder plot and Guy Fawkes and his gang trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament. It’s never happened since. In December 2001 Richard Reid, known as the shoe bomber, famously failed in his attempt to bring down a transatlantic airliner by lighting the fuse on the back of his shoes. Because his feet were sweaty and his shoes were wet, the plot failed, yet we don’t mark the 21st December by setting fire to our trainers, do we?
Although he’s the main reason I now have to go through security in my socks. Nice one dick head. I’ve waved my belongings through in a plastic tray and some scally is now walking off with them and I can’t even run after him! Even if I did have my trainers, because I’ve taken my belt off, my trousers are now gathering around my ankles, I just look like a flustered penguin.
We don’t need an act of terrorism to bring down the government now anyway, do we? They do it themselves. All you need to mention is HS2 and crumbling concrete and they shit themselves.
My Dad certainly talked a good game. But when it came to doing displays at home, he approached it with an over confidence that used to make us nervous. A bit like Maverick in Top Gun. He got the job done but he was a risk taker. We only did fireworks at home one year. I remember it well. My Dad got us all to stand on the patio whilst he unveiled his “display”
After a few glasses of red it was a bit of an anticlimax. In fact he spent the first ten minutes in the corner near the pagoda lighting the tops of his flowers. “This is a Roman Candle!” “Nope that’s a daffodil Dad!”
He’d try and work up through the fireworks to create an air of excitement. All of them buried in a plant pot for extra safety. They had names like Rainbow Explosion, Starlight Wonder and the one he got cheap from the market Thunder Bastard. They all came in a cardboard box, which didn’t seem that safe to me. I’m sure some drunk dad has in the past just stuck the whole lot in a bin and set fire to it.
We’d gather in our cagoules holding a hotdog for warmth and have to give a “oooohhh” and a “wow!” every time one of them was fired into the air. I say fired, some of them barely made it above the fence.
I’ve tried to continue this tradition, but unless you’re willing to go off the grid, importing explosives in from China like some sort of terrorist cell, the results are always feeble.
I love the fact that there are fireworks shops. You see them pop up on the high street. What a bizarre business that is. A frantic sales push from October to November, open up for three days between Christmas and New year for the New Years Eve lot, and then take the rest of the year off. Can you imagine doing the accounts? It’d only take minutes.
One year I tried to pass on the tradition. I thought I’m not taking my children to an organised display, it’s so artificial, where is the romance, the creativity? There is one huge display near us and it’s totally devoid of charm. You have to stand about half a mile away, there’s no bonfire, no pie and peas. Just endless stalls of people selling cheap battery powered luminous landfill. LED wands and spinning Catherine Wheels that stop working immediately on November 6th.
One display split the fireworks up into two sessions. To try and keep a captive audience, that is a right shithouse trick that. Keeping our freezing children hostage for five hours, just get it done and let’s all get home, some of us have got a cat who is presently shaking like a war veteran having a flashback.
You wouldn’t want to be a pet on Bonfire Night, would you? Can you imagine? They don’t know what the hell is going on. Their idyllic existence of licking their own nuts, sleeping all day and murdering birds is shattered by random explosions and the sound of car alarms piercing the night. You can’t do anything about it either, you can’t put ear defenders on a cat, it’s like trying to get a pair of goggles on a toddler. My kids leave the Alexa on for him, classic FM, that’ll chill him out. I’m not so sure, I think explosions just make Beethoven’s Ninth seem even more foreboding.
So anyway, there I was, the king of my own little display. Kids and grandparents huddled on the patio. My brand-new box of Standard fireworks, ready to be lit. Passing on the mantle, just like my father had done before me. Standard fireworks is a leading brand, but it’s an awful name. What’s fun about something standard? “How was your night out Dave?” “Oh, standard…” “sounds shit mate!” They should change that company name to banging. “Julie, bring out my box of Banging fireworks” that’s already more exciting, isn’t it?
These fireworks weren’t great. I may have let them off but they were a let-down. A fizz here, a tiny flash of colour, and all the combined explosive power of a Tory party conference.
The “ooohs” and “ahhs” morphed into embarrassed giggles. My crowd drifted away. Not helped by the guy next door who had clearly got hold of some sort of surface to air missile and was firing them frantically out of a drainpipe. It sounded like a greased-up monkey being shot down the luge. Fence panels were rattling, the wind chimes on the shed were clinking, it ruined my display.
I felt like a busker trying to take on the last night of the proms with only a ukulele and a tambourine.
So whatever you’re doing this year, have a safe and happy Bonfire Night and remember, if your children spend the whole night cowering in fear in a pair of ear defenders, if your pets are traumatised for life and your own display is a total disaster, then all is not lost. Remember, Guy Fawkes was a failure too, and he’s the reason we do this nonsense. So if nothing else, at least you’re sticking to tradition.
Scott Bennett Comedian
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