Bonfire Night was a favourite night of the year as before large organised displays,it was always family affair i the back of our garden. Counsins, uncles and aunties all attended and if we had a visitor staying, they joined in, like the redoubtable Jock Morrison who was managing the shopfitting of Marks and Spencers and was staying from his home in Glasgow. He contributed a large box of fireworks to the proceedings like the one above.
You couldn’t beat Standard Fireworks back in the day. Their box artwork was the stuff of legends and the fireworks seldom disappointed.
It would be agony for all the family to gather, and I used to sit on the top of our brick and concrete shed to see the fireworks of other families as a prelude to our own. We also had to wait for all the dad’s to finish work, come home, wash and change from their work clothes.
There was always a surplus gabardine mackintosh for the guy and a pillow case was filled with straw from the rabbit hutch to form a face. Being a strong socialist household, the guy was always pictured as a Tory politician. I can just remember Sir Alec Douglas Home and Ted Heath crackling away.
Before the fire was started my mum and aunties would prepare the evening’s food. Potatoes were placed in the oven to bake, there was a heady smell of sausages grilling and onions frying and a massive pan of tomato soup to which my mum added some milk and pepper. The finger rolls covered both the hot dogs and the dunking bread for the soup which was served in a pair of last Christmas’ paper drinking cups. Two paper cups ensured that we didn’t burn ourselves with the steaming soup. I remember them having a blue Dresden type design which seemed unsuitable for Christmas or Bonfire night, but that didn’t matter because they were serviceable enough, and would go to waste otherwise.
The adults, usually my dad, lit the fireworks and there was a chain of command of us children along whom was passed each firework. This stretched the proceedings out to cover for the lack of fireworks but also gave each child time to contemplate the coming delights. We knew the Standard Firework range intimately and could tell what each firework would entail.
The box of Standard Fireworks illustrated was available in the early sixties. By the end of the decade, several of them had been banned as being too dangerous for public use. Examples of such fireworks included the Jumping Jack ( my brother Graham’s favourite ). This was effectively a ribbon of gunpowder filled paper pleated together with cotton such that each pleat would explode individually and propel the jumping jack in whatever direction it chose. These caused mayhem in the garden as us children tried to anticipate the next direction of travel. It was an errant jumping jack which led to the fireworks being kept in the shed and distributed to my father one at a time as in a previous year a jumping jack landed in a small box of fireworks carelessly left on the ground and managed to ignite them all simultaneously. The display was intense but short-lived.
There was a story that a Jumping Jack had landed down one of my distant auntie’s fur-lined boot and had continued to explode – doing untold burn damage to her leg. Perhaps it was a story told to keep us from buying the Jumping Jack as a loose firework in the weeks leading up to Bonfire Night.
The Aeroplane featured above, was also to be banned. This looked a fairly innocuous firework of diminutive size and with a short cardboard wing with RAF roundels on it. When lit it spun into the air and flew at random angles at tremendous speed until all the gunpowder was used up. Auntie Doreen had once hid herself in the outside toilet when this firework was announced, only to find the errant Aeroplane taking off, leaving the confines of the garden and returning in a flight of increasingly obtuse angles until it entered the outside toilet in the small gap at the bottom of the wooden door. Auntie Doreen always stayed indoors to watch the fireworks after that, waving serenely, like the queen as we oohed and aahed in the cold air of the garden.
The cone-shaped fireworks went by names like Hell’s volcano or Vesuvius and burned with an angry intensity , often producing a fierce display of lava which flowed down the sides. As quickly as they started, they fizzled out, leaving just the molten lava glowing in the night air.
The Roman Candles were sedate fireworks that occasionally changed colour from red to yellow to green, which was not unlike the similar traffic lights. However, we tended to prefer the fireworks which projected fireballs into the air with noisy abandon.
The most enigmatic firework was always the Catherine Wheel. The white circular firework was meant to be pinned securely to a wooden post allowing it to rotate freely and with increasing speed as the gunpowder expended itself. It was an unpredictable cove and one year it would stay still and simply consume itself, another it would fall from the post and convulse on the ground. Probably the best Catherine Wheel display was that provided by my mother when my dad was delayed by being on the late shift. It span freely and for an extended period before being consumed in flames. Unfortunately my mum had pinned it to the shed door and it had removed and burned a neat spiral into the paintwork. I remember thinking it was not me for once who had done something so daft!
The ground firew0rks were usually punctuated with rockets of ever greater girth. The sixpenny ones were often fired in volleys from a succession of milk bottles, half buried in the soil which had held the peas and beans in the summer. The formal part of the display always concluded with the launch of the largest five shilling rocket and we all cheered as it exploded with a resounding roar.
The fun was not over though, my dad would pass me a rake and I was told to spread out the embers of the bonfire so that it could be used to finish off the baked potatoes. As the adults made their way back into the house to open the party sevens of Watney’s Red Barrel, or to sample a Snowball or two or a Cherry B, the elder members of my cousins abandoned the rake and went fire-walking through the embers in our wellies – daring each other to see who could withstand the glutinous heat which was melting our rubber boots.
Soup, hot dogs and baked potatoes finished, there just remained the cavalcade of sparklers. We were all lined up and given a giant sparkler and processed one by one to the gas stove to light it and then our of the door and into the garden to dance and scream making neon versions of our names and rude words which were burnt into our retinas and remain there to this day. Invariably, one child would get burned by a sparkler – usually by holding it in an ungloved hand or returning to the dying sparkler to see how hot it still was rather than dunking it in the bucket of sand provided for safety.
Bonfire Night often ended on a bit of a damp squib, not least for the person burnt that year but the real agony was that it would be a year before we would gather again for such an illuminating spectacle!