Fun with Fire

Sparks on bonfire night

Home Fires Burning

It was as long ago as 18 months since I last bought a box of fireworks but they mean a lot to me. Ever since my first year of life until rather recently my birthday celebration have been paired with the aborted ending of parliament by means of a similar show of joy. This was not due to any political leanings on our part, it‘s just because the two anniversaries often fall in the same week. In the past I had not either the legal status or the hard cash required to emulate Mr. Fawks unaided so to get round this minor problem, each year my Father would take me shopping.

We always used the 'French Toy shop‘ to get my supplies. A wonderful place was that. They wrapped things up in blue and white striped paper bags. Each Christmas seeing one of them in my stocking would always mean something fun. The shop is long gone now and yet the bags still circulate amongst my family as tokens of past happy days. This is an indication of the importance we attached to nearly all forms of tradition.

I seldom saw the inside of the shop except when looking for explosives and so I always think of the counter there as only serving that purpose. Spread out under the glass at each annual pilgrimage they lay there enticingly. Their colours and designs sometimes captured my attention more strongly un-lit then they would in their brief moments of fiery glory. Often, after the event, I would collect them up again pretending to be tidy, but really I just wanted to look at them once more. In their ranks of trays, each more splendid than the last they still hold a magic for me that I can‘t explain. The firework code safety leaflets were always falling down the side of the drawers on to the next level. There the size and price was greater than above. Once I had first chosen enough of the lower priced ones I would be sure to find them crumpled up in the drawer runners. As the glass top became slowly covered I watched the assistant construct a list on the back of one of the leaflets. In growing trepidation I would see the cost of my purchases rise. At this point I always had to cope with the same problem. A compromise would have to be made between number and size of the remainder I could expect to be allowed. In those days I could 'only‘ spend twenty pounds or so in total. Each year the choice became more difficult as the prices where always rising and the quality falling. Things have not improved much to this day. That was not at all fair to my mind then and nor can I see a good reason for it now. These days I regret the wonderful smells of the past have often turned to those of scorched rubber and the fireworks don‘t burn as long either. But what ever I thought of the value for money I still had my choices to make. How could I ever chose between either the ”Mine of Serpents• or another five rockets, ”The Devil Amongst the Tailors• or a large ”Wheel of Fire•, a really big rocket that would explode too high to see but looked good on the carpet that night, or a dozen more small ones from the top draw. Often I managed to make the task look so impossible that I could get the lot! It was only very late in life that my guile ran thin but by then I could buy them myself.

That was all before I discovered the pleasures and pains of the real world outside. After what I then considered to be my ”leaving home• there were no parents to set up the event or to clear up afterwards. This was to be expected, so I didn‘t mind the change of management. The task was taken on by my new wife. The problem was that she didn‘t yet know the depth of tradition necessary on such an occasion. In the heat of young love I couldn‘t bring this shortcoming in to the open and so things changed. The results were very good, a sort of new look personal ”Octoberfest• sprang from the ashes. The major change turned out to be that my parents were not even there to watch. To keep the home fires burning I would still have a small traditional 'Do‘ with them at the old house but the Big one would be held with my friends in our garden.

There was another problem to cope with by then, that of finding the right time to fit it in! When you work twelve hours a day on a strange shift system and so do all your friends then just any day chosen by the shifting seasons won‘t do. Work being then outside my powers of control I shifted my birth-date to fit. This was a strange thing for me. Being neither a Royal nor even a Bear I had to get used to having a real and an official birthday. On the one, people permitting, I would have my presents. On the other I would set fire to some of them. Doing things this way had the effect of rather diluting the whole occasion. Every problem comes with some form of solution and I soon found one that worked. I could spend an inordinate amount of time unwrapping my presents, savoring the experiences to the full. This way I could stretch one event until it blended in with the other quite nicely. By then my ”birthday• was again whole with the advantage that it would last a week or more.

”Firework night" had now become a general celebration rather than being specifically my own. Because of its inordinate length the season could and did bring in other days of note, like the fifth and other peoples birthdays. This watering down of the Me-ness of things had the effect of also bringing in more people and they brought their own fireworks. The pleasure of setting up a party or other sort of gathering is always nicer delegated. This was fine for me as huge numbers of boxes required longer to ignite, thereby extending my delight beyond the limits of my pocket.

Being the only person willing to take on the possibly hazardous task of doing the lighting the main evening tended to stretch still further. In the old days I used to dream of being the lucky one to light the blue touch paper. Being a realist I would also imagine then having to sneak back up to the dead ember and re-light the thing to the accompanying cries of ”Oh do be careful•. I clearly remember standing on the bit of concrete that there always is at the house end of a display back garden, my feet chilling as I looked on enraptured at the lighting ceremonies. When the great days of my time in office finally dawned it never occurred to me that the pain in other peoples feet would become too great to bare after the first hour or so. Oblivious to their growing distress I used to prance happily up to the stage clutching the next set of lucky tubes chatting gaily over my shoulder at my dwindling audience. Only when it struck me that the ”Oh‘s• and ”Ah‘s• had stopped did I ever notice the fact I was alone. They had all snuck back inside to warm themselves and shake the mud from their feet carefully onto the news paper one of them, not me had thought of putting down. Once they were thus comforted, happy to get on with the task of eating and such, it was very difficult to get them all back outside again for the set-piece finale. But manage it I did. Grumbling good naturedly they would nearly all suit up and join me for the last big flash and bang. Going inside for the second time the mud went everywhere.

After a few years of this I found that it was possible to save some fireworks for ”Another time.• What a brilliant concept! But which time should I chose? Already the traditional ”Do" and the fifth where sufficiently good causes and had already been put to such use, but this further realisation opened up the possibility of little nights of explosive fun at almost any time at all! Moving to a house from a flat looked like a good enough reason. Once it became possible for me to think the chances where fair that I would regain the ownership of a garden I bought the box I spoke of above. The sad thing was the poor little packet was not opened that year at all. I didn‘t move after all, even though I had the fireworks ready and everything. So I left them until the time could once more be ripe. But when would that be?

In all these intervening months the box has lived on top of the kitchen wardrobe. Funny place to have a kitchen, in a bedroom, but the flat was rather strangely converted. They sat up there, getting all fatty and grey in their cellophane waiting patiently for better days to die in. When one came I was too busy! This year my birthday fell just before our moving day. The day of the move itself was November the Fifth and so both good days were gone and still the box lived on. Living myself in Nottingham, for the first time ever the parental event didn‘t happen either. All hope was not yet lost for this time there was another reason to set them off just begging to be used.

With all new girl-friends comes another birthday! Mo‘s falls on the twenty sixth of November. Perfect! With all self- made home moves come a large number of boxes making the trip as sort lived home containers. It has not yet been long enough even now to retire them all but there was enough time in the three weeks we had to empty twenty or so. They spent some of their last days as a slowly growing crowd in both our cellars, getting and creating damp as they blocked the subterranean air flow. Once I spotted this they lived in a tottering pile in the backgarden. This garden is small. Divided diagonally by a concrete path wider than either remaining part it still apparently provides space in one corner for bonfires. It is over looked and yet cosy. The brick walls bordering the garden on two sides are higher than the first floor of our house that borders the third. A wooden fence completes the enclosure of 200 square foot at the otherwise only open end. It was here that I planned for the event.

Once night had come, at about five that day we started. Firework box ready, matches akimbo and hopes high Mo and I expectantly watched the first match flame sputter and die on the dampened edge of a lower box. The second match flared better, catching albeit slowly. Helping the flames I moved a higher box deeper in to the drying heat. I had no need to do this. Within not-long- at-all the smoke and then the flames themselves had topped both walls. We both love bonfires and this one was a really delightful sight for even the most hardened of pyromaniacs, but rapidly the heat was becoming stupendous, driving us both back against the house. The light shed by bright flames is not matched by any other I know for the eerie quality it gives to the objects it illuminates. Things seen in such a light take on a significance they would not otherwise own. But by this light I could clearly see something that had an importance irrespective of its illumination. I had not considered looking up before igniting the blaze. Running above and along the top of the wall opposite the fence runs a cable, a satellite television cable put there by the good people of Redifusion. Very pretty it looked too as the flames, the smoke and the sparks roared in the suddenly stiffening wind tunnel of the garden....

                                                .....Fire storm! Blast!

But this was to be a celebration and was not yet a disaster. I had no desire to commemorate our first month in a new home by burning it down or being chucked out from the locality by hoards of tele-deprived ex-viewers. Calling the Brigade would have been a good idea but by the time I had done so, let alone by the time they would have arrived it would have been too late. The walls would have ballooned out and then caved down upon us. The windows in the houses of the terrace would have slumped to grit in their frames and we would have had no need to worry about the aftermath as we would be able to watch it all in a detached sort of way from a position about ten foot above and just a bit behind the pile of debris. But that time had not yet come for either of us. These boxes did not have our names on them. Stealing myself against the concerns of the moment I could tell that there was still just enough time to find and chuck water on the fifteen foot flames before the windows melted. Then I could get near enough to pull down the pile of still un-burnt boxes and slow further combustion to a manageable rate. As vast and unquenchable as the conflagration then appeared the water did the trick. Shaken but trying not to show it I re-filled my bucket and collected my spade from the cellar. As the garden had been built by builders and not gardeners it is composed entirely of sand and this I shoveled on top of the most threatening parts. Then bravely on with the original event to which the fire was to have been merely an adjunct. At last the fireworks could be opened.

A small packet of rockets had come with a plastic launching tube which I had put in the ground ready for later, but it was no longer vertical but worm-like melted to the ground. A milk bottle was called for as replacement and a volunteer was duly found from the audience. It lasted well but fell too to the heat of the moment, clicking apart as a small firework at its base burnt and lit a rocket placed erect above it in the bottles neck. The rocket shot off as planed leaving the launcher rather un-well but still just serviceable. The next attempt shot a rocket directly at the clothes line which had already past the heat test. It wobbled the rocket wildly but let it continue more vertically then horizontally up and away from us. At this point you can imagine that our adrenal glands were getting a thorough workout. We were both gently trembling, was it excitement or plain fear? The garden was too small for this game and far too enclosed. But the box was not yet empty! So onwards and stout heart!

The Jack-in-the-box has always been a worrying little chap. In what we now recognised as being a chimney the lighting of one could be said to be foolhardy but well, this was a celebration. We were celebrating being still alive after the fire for one thing. These fireworks are supposed to start rather like a violent but small Roman Candle and then waft gently smoldering tissue paper and little coloured sparks up to ten feet high. This one didn‘t. It gave a time compressed version of the first part of the expected schedule and followed it immediately by viciously exploding sideways around our knees. The sound was fun too. Instead of the expected ”wooHOPPP!• we were suddenly treated to a bang such as would kill the neighbours had they survived the fire. And still the box was not empty. The next rocket disturbed the new graves next door by plunging into them and exploding at ground level. It was then I noticed their washing. As the embers ceased glowing, the trail of the last rocket fading into scorch marks on the inevitable concrete next door, I wondered what I could say to put things right. Then to calm my nerves I set off another few rockets. The first one from this batch managed to hit our washing line, I having moved the bottle back from the fence in vain order to avoid the one next door. This spun the missile at us and in to the wall against which we had taken to cowering as each successive blue touch paper burnt. Oh how we laughed. The second one managed a un-deflected trip directly upwards in to the now still night air. Thus it hardly made any sideways movement at all before starting on the downward journey. It landed more loudly than I thought necessary on a very hollow nearby roof. The last rocket of this bunch took off at an angle that at first glance would not endanger anyone or anything. That one hit a window some way off with a nice little thump, still under full power.

At this point I was beginning to feel a little sheepish, but what harm a little spinner nailed to the wall thought I? It would have helped if the wall had let the nail in and held it firmly, but it didn‘t. The spinner lit well enough, there being no impacted glue over the end but the axle was not up to the job and gave way before the first rotation was complete. The momentum it had gained in its partial swing propelled it towards the dividing fence where it directed its jet to burnt out against the wood. I thought at the time the mark would wash off. Anyway, one last piece and it would all be over. A Triple Roman Candle on a stick, stuck firmly in the sand pointing as away from us as possible whilst still pointing up. It had a fuse that combined the three nozzles to one bit of blue paper. This I lit as the instructions presumably required. Maybe they said what the minimum size of garden should be for such a display piece, I don‘t know but I would suggest a distance of about fifty feet and not the five we had. The fuse burnt faster than any banger I have ever come across, going off so loudly that in my haste to protect her I found I had nearly knocked Mo over, (so I said). Although it did not project anything directly at us, those pretty coloured balls bounce! In this case they were pumped in a stream as if from a trio of silenced machine guns towards and against all the walls we had. These acted as a sort of lens. Strange thing was, we were standing at the focus, well now we know. The one ball that missed us went next door...

Once it had all died down and we had done a quick check over each other to look for still burning embers I burnt all the firework remains. After all, I am not a child any more. When no evidence save ashes were left I buried them in the sand. I tell myself it is to make the garden more fertile.

In the calming light of the new day the T.V. cable looked unharmed. No one has yet been round for a ”quiet word• either so maybe, just maybe it is safe to try again next year.

"Sparks on Bonfire Night."

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I come from an almost traditional family, the sort one doesn‘t find often these days. We follow the habits of old in as much as for us Birthdays and Firework night still mean something. For years now my Birthday has fallen around the time traditionally associated with November the Fifth and so from my earliest days these two major celebrations have been combined.

My memories of the first five or more such evening events are so cloudy as to no longer exist. Maybe they will flash before my eyes one day in the future but until then I can speak with authority only for the rest of them. The earliest recollection of which I am currently aware, which holds up to retelling in the company of a member of the family, is not of explosives in a muddy back garden but of the type created by a concentration of school age children in an other persons house. This was my first real Birthday Party. The combination of free food and freedom from personal parental guidance allowed the children I had been told to call friends to really let rip. From this day on any guests of mine for any gathering have been very carefully chosen, and chosen by me. Only grudgingly do I even now attend groupings gathered together by others for fear that events of my youth may happen again.

Rather than provide local kids the pleasure of destroying my home, I do it myself but under much more controlled circumstances. For me the delight of setting fire to something designed for the purpose has never lost its lure. Only last night I found myself throwing unused tissues into the newly opened old hearth. I spent a few happy minutes striking and throwing still flaring matches after them in the hope the flames would spread. I didn‘t stop until they had. If the first match had done the job I would have had to make the task harder, by throwing from a greater distance at wet paper. Like a cat playing with a ball of wool, it is not much fun if I hit it right with the first try. The pleasure comes from the triumph after effort. These days I am a bit more laid back about things, I didn‘t record this act of gentle pyromania on tape. Many audio tapes do exist preserving the sounds of old fireworks being trodden into the traditional mud of bygone days. These are not just any old ordinary tape recordings but experiments in the world of sound.

Quadraphonics. Now there is a word to remember. It used to refer to the act of reproducing sound through four loudspeakers in such a way as to reproduce the effect of a jumping jack chasing you all 360 degrees around the microphones. It could take hours to set up the machinery, I needed two tape recorders for the job, one pulling the tape, one having the tape pulled through it backwards. Two plus two you know. They would be set up in my room miles away from the sounds which had to be amplified in order to get them as far as the tape. Multiple lengths of wire snaked and looped in what I thought was a neat manor around the house carrying this deathless signal to posterity. It took me all day to set it up. By the time all the wires were in place the fireworks themselves had to be arranged. This could also take some time. So to could the building and subsequent lighting of the bonfire. After a few years of also cramming in time enough for making a Guy he was dropped from the running order in favour of getting round to letting off the explosives.

I used to have a sack full of the things. Bright colours and funny smells all of them. And that was before they were lit. For weeks before the great day I would take the out and look at them and give them a really good sniff.

Fireworks do smell so very nice. Well they did when I smelt them as part of my pre-birthday fun. These days they might as well be filled with rubber by the stench coming from them, but not then. Today only the organised displays smell right. I used to spread my collection of the home variety out on the floor, a table was never large enough. There I would play with them. I would pretend to follow the Firework code, not to be held in the hand, then transfer bits from the top of one to the top of another, creating a new type of pyrotechnic delight in the process. The result was a lot of gunpowder in the carpet and a few unexpected fizzles on the day of lighting. I am tempted to think that one has to try very hard to be injured by fireworks. Thirty years of being stupid and I have not a blister to show for it, but then I was stupid carefully.

Looking back I do remember some very close shaves, or good fun as we called it at the time. Putting bangers in pipes blocked with mud at each end would make a domestic bazooka capable of blasting a whole clean through the canopy of any deciduous tree daft enough to still be carrying leaves in October. That was fun. An adaptation from the basic weapon produced a missile launcher that could project a plastic pipe forty feet into the air. The mechanism of directing the trajectory was never worked out, the flight was seldom watched, we were running away too fast. All these things come from my past dalliances but even today escape is sometimes a matter more of chance than judgement. This year past I was given and launched an unmodified rocket of gargantuan proportions. The garden could not provide the stated fifty or so foot stand-well-back distance but I let it off anyway. It rose majestically in to the clear still night sky, perused by more than a usual amount of Ooing and Ahing. Eventually it ran out of puff, maybe it bounced off an undiscovered dark moon or something, it should have reached orbit it was high enough. The rocket was then seen to rotate about its axis by exactly 180 degrees before beginning an equally fast but this time almost invisible and silent decent. Most of us observing the phenomenon called that the end of the display. Something from my years of training in these matters made me follow it down, guided by the failing red glow from the exhaust. This was nearly a very good thing because it landed in the garden, not five feet from the bucket that gave it flight. The thump made by the homecoming showed us how lucky we had been that it missed the roof. Slates and their replacement could have been an expensive end to the evening. We were luckier still, it missed us!

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