Bonfire night was always a major celebration in our family and our back garden was the location for the annual festivities.
In the 1960’s the family bonfire party was the norm and the back garden was the venue. In all honestly we kids used to be purchasing and letting off fireworks from the time they became available in the local shops in late September. We’d go to different shops, often away from the Reso so that our firework purchasing would not draw the suspicion of the local shopkeepers. We would club together to extend our purchases from a single banger to a box of ten, and there would inevitably be disputes about who had contributed most, and who would decide where and when we would let off the fireworks.
On the Reso there were some houses which had a covered entry between the houses. We used to gather to light fireworks in such entries because the sound and awe of the bangers going off in such confined spaces was spectacular. The game was to stand next to the exploding firework and only then run and hide as the local house dwellers came storming out to investigate the deafening explosion. It was sometimes difficult to think coherently and run when you had been so close to the explosion and you could only hear the jabber of your friends as a high-pitched yet muffled rumble.
My mam was probably the most dangerous person I knew around fireworks. On the one occasion when my dad was working an afternoon shift and would not be home until at least 10.30, she took charge of the proceedings. It was mayhem!
The rocket which was designed to commence the proceedings was too large for the milk bottle in which it was placed. My brother and I pointed out the danger, but mam thought we were questioning her ability and waved aside our warnings. As she lit the outsized rocket, sure enough the milk bottle fell over. Luckily, on the rough furrowed soil that my dad prepared at the end of the vegetable growing season, it fell facing into a neighbours garden. Had it fallen the other way it would have shot straight through our back room window and exploded on the dining table. As it was, it managed to penetrate the chain link fence and was caught miraculously in a large bra, injudiciously left on the line by our neighbour. Caught and held firm in the bra, the firework worked itself to a crescendo. Mam immediately urged everyone in, and suspended proceedings until she was sure the neighbours were not going to come out and complain. I was the only one who stayed out to see the rocket explode, closer to the ground than intended. In a crescendo of red and green stars one bosom of the bra was turned into a colander.
To her credit when both Ruby, the neighbour, and my mam were in the garden the next morning sorting washing for the line, she feigned innocence, being dumbfounded by the damage to the bra… ‘bloody kids, eh!’ were her words of commiseration to Ruby and her air ventilated left bosomed bra..
After a 15 minute hiatus, my mam reconvened the firework party and things started to approach normality. A succession of Roman Candles and a Vesuvius were successfully lit and we ooh’ed and aah’ed at their wonderful showers of colour and volcanic lava spurting.
My mam, emboldened by these successes, now proceeded to prepare a Catherine Wheel. Again we gave her wise advise to attach it to the washing line post, but she insisted it would look better pinned to the recently painted shed door. She picked up a handily placed half brick and proceeded to hammer the Catherine wheel into the door. It was clear what was going to happen and assuredly it did. Mam lit the holy firework and retreated as fast as her furry boots would allow her. The Catherine Wheel spluttered into life, but effectively nailed securely to the door, refused to turn, and instead expended its fiery fury down the paintwork of the door, burning a neat vertical line in the paint, which given the furious temperatures, continued to burn after the firework had expended its sparkling contents.
My mam was crestfallen that the Catherine Wheel had not performed as desired and immediately advanced on the door to pin a second wheel below the first. This time she summoned me into the house to bring a small hammer from my dad’s toolkit. She tacked the pin very carefully this time, ensuring that the firework was able to spin freely. Like a surgeon, she handed the hammer back to me and instructed me to retreat as she lit this second firework.
She was delighted when this Catherine Wheel spun flawlessly, showering sparks in silver circles at a faster and faster pace until all the gunpowder was expended and a burning disk was all that remained. In the darkness and with our eyes overwhelmed by the sparky, mesmerising display, we could not see the full damage to the shed door.
My mam’s efforts had burned a large exclamation mark into the door, which would form the basis of a family argument the following day, in which, for my part, I repeated my advice of the night, which had been to use the washing line post for the Catherine Wheels, my dad nodded in agreement, and my mam gave me a withering look.
On the eve of the seventies, the popularity of the family garden firework display declined. This was in part due to the sheer volume of accidents which inundated hospital accident and emergency wards each Bonfire Night. It might also have been a signal of the weakening of family ties. either way, it seemed the future belonged to large organised displays. Ironically, at the first organised display I can remember taking place, on the promenade, a fireman was tragically killed by a massive firework detonating prematurely.
The organised displays comprise massive expenditure on spectacular fireworks, but the children are now passive onlookers, rather than active participants in the events of the night. As I was never hurt by fireworks, other than the odd burn, and temporary loss of hearing. I don’t feel so keenly the demand to control fireworks as those who were more grievously burned.
The pictures were taken last week at the annual Southwell Rugby Club display.