As a young boy, many of my peers and I were of the opinion that the loudest fireworks were the best. Explosions trumped any fancy shower of sparks, and the more ear-splitting the better.
Of course, there were always those who complained that such pyrotechnics frightened people and animals, but, at the risk of sounding uncaring, I had such detractors down as killjoys.
That was because I wasn’t aware of just how frightening repeated sudden explosions were to those for whom Guy Fawkes’ night would be a Guy Fawkes nightmare. I imagined the family dog hiding under the bed for the duration, and perhaps the cat making an unscheduled stop at its litter tray, but that was about it.
The blue touch paper
Now considerably older, and a little wiser, I know that many people have an utter dread of loud fireworks, and pets and wild animals can be terrified by them too.
It’s been many a year since I last lit the blue touch paper, as I now tolerate fireworks, rather than light them.
The pyrotechnics landscape changed when there was a clampdown on those squibs from my youth that were most open to misuse. Several types of firework from my childhood are no longer available in stores, having been banned in 1997.
The list includes bangers, mini rockets, and, a favourite of mine as a child, the jumping jack (or jumpy jack, as we used to call it). It was banned because it fell into the following category:
Fireworks with erratic flight (e.g., ground spinners, jumping jacks, squibs).
The jumping jack was a fuse attached to a long snake of explosive powder, which was shaped into a zigzag, and then pressed together and held in place by tape or string. It was customary to throw the lit firework onto the ground, where it would jump with a bang, in which direction, no-one knew, repeatedly until it was spent.
Anticipation of the jumping jack’s next move was a great thrill to kids, and there were squeals and laughter as it leapt about at random.
But, safety first is the order of the day, and some of the most popular fireworks from my youth were withdrawn. Yet, as far as the jumping jack went, its entirely unpredictable nature was in fact its main appeal.
Screech, flash and burst
Despite the well-documented terror that loud fireworks cause to people and animals, the modern firework display is very much centred on bangs and explosions. Home-bought firework selection boxes that offer comparatively timid squibs, such as the volcano and the Roman candle, are often shunned in favour of those that screech, flash and burst. The attraction of the more volatile brand of firework is not a new fad though.
I got a feeling of excitement, perhaps accompanied by a pang of butterflies, when I learned that the local newsagent had just put bangers on sale in readiness for Guy Fawkes’ Night. I even remember successfully buying my first box of those little explosive tubes, having lied to the shopkeeper in my gruffed-up prepubescent voice that I was fourteen.
With explosives in our hands (or rather in our pockets for convenience, even though public information films stressed that fireworks should never be carried that way), a group of us roamed the estate in search of novel ways to detonate our charges.
We set them off up drainpipes (loud echo), in biscuit tins (lid blown off) and down car exhausts (angry owner on the warpath). Irresponsible, yes, but we were only doing what other kids were doing across the land.
Pretending to summon a genie
Occasionally, one of our number would perform the old trick of splitting open a banger and making a pile of the powder that came out. He would then ignite the pile with a match and it would go up in a puff of thick white smoke.
It was an impressive, but comparatively noiseless stunt, which was generally deemed a waste of a banger. Our explosive enterprises offered way more excitement than pretending to summon a genie.
When my youngest son was about first school age, I noticed a dad from the next estate setting off a box of fireworks for his kids on a grass hill nearby. I took my progeny along to watch, but others from the estate had turned up too, some of who weren’t shy in offering their opinion of the display.
As the perturbed pater lit a series of rather tame fireworks that offered nothing by way of explosion, but threw out coloured flames and sparks, an uncouth element of the audience laughed mockingly, and words such as crap were to be heard from that section throughout the performance.
I really felt for the guy, who had put on a display for his young children, not local yobs.
Many years later I went through a similar experience myself. I was at a bonfire party at a friend’s, and I’d been shanghaied into the role of pyrotechnics manager, along with my friend Graeme.
It may have been because the fireworks were stored in damp grass, or they may have been an inferior brand, but either way they fell some way short of spectacular.
We were in a field at the bottom of a hill, and up at the top, by the house, excited children waited with their parents for the big display. You’ll get an idea of how poor the fireworks were when I tell you that the biggest ooh! from the kids came when Graeme flicked his cigarette end away.
I jest, of course.
To end on a positive note, technology may be coming to the aid of those fearful folk and petrified pets on occasions when fireworks would usually be bursting in the night sky.
Spectacular, non-explosive displays are really taking off — figuratively and literally — in the form of hundreds of small drones, each equipped with changeable coloured lights.
These brilliant gadgets fly into all manner of enormous and mesmerising shapes, and perform amazing aerial acrobatics, to the accompaniment of music rather than explosions.
There are many examples of this exciting new phenomenon online. Check out some of those videos, and you’ll see that they are quite something.
But, whether this new form of aerial display will put an end to exploding fireworks remains to be seen. I doubt it will.
If you intend to go out celebrating on Guy Fawkes’ Night this year, do take care, and stay safe.