A few years ago I went to a wonderful bonfire party at the home of some friends in Edinburgh. There was mulled wine, home-made toffee apples, rosy-cheeked people in jumpers and woolly hats, and a clutch of deliriously happy children who stayed awake way past their bedtime before surrendering to satisfied slumber on laps warmed by open fires and camaraderie. It really was the epitome of Keats’ season of mellow fruitfulness. Until I heard something that sounded so much like a mortar that I slunk indoors like a cowardly Labrador.
My hosts had a pal who had been preparing his own gunpowder plot. He’d been working part-time in a gun shop and had been surreptitiously pilfering tiny amounts of powder with which to construct home-made fireworks.
The resultant rockets were loud and terrifying, but only marginally more so than the kind of fireworks that you can buy in a supermarket. To me, anyway.
A long time before that, I experienced a tropical rollercoaster of emotions on a Brazilian beach during a New Year celebration. I was at a party on the bend of a bay, about a mile away from the residence of a flashy millionaire who enjoyed wowing the locals with spectacular fireworks just as the clock struck 12. Another millionaire had moved into the opposite end of the bay, and took it upon himself to outdo millionaire number one by staging his own extravaganza.
All this would have been fantastically enjoyable had not the thousands of people between these displays decided to bring their own fireworks and firecrackers and get really stuck in. I mean really stuck in. It looked absolutely stunning but it was terrifying. With each explosion my heart smacked around in my chest and every time a stray ember whizzed or floated past my eyes and hair I felt like running away.
I should point out that I’m not usually such a coward, but I hadn’t seen fireworks in the flesh before the age of ten, because I grew up during a civil war and, well, entertainment like that is neither a priority nor terribly sensible when you’re keeping an ear out for gunfire and whatnot.
Even when I’m far away from the explosive entertainment I find my body squandering panicky shots of adrenaline when I should be sitting back enjoying the spectacle.
This is probably what it’s like for animals, many of which have the bejesus scared out of them every time we celebrate the outwitting of Guy Fawkes. It’s almost as if they don’t see the point of it all.
I’m not against fireworks per se – it’s hard to beat the wonder and creativity of it all, and there is something really special about thousands of people coming together to share a few moments of oohing and aahing.
We hold each other cosy and close and beam at the awe-struck faces of children. We travel for miles, queue for hours and book weeks in advance to spend a little while enjoying the colourful magic in the sky.
There’s something intensely attractive – primal even – about light in the darkness, and anything that brings us together is not to be sniffed at.
And it’s not for nothing that these enchanting pyrotechnics are used to symbolise triumph and carnal passion. It’s exciting, risky and usually represents a special occasion.
Fires and (controlled) explosions have a powerful allure. There’s nothing like an open fire to send people into a state of semi-meditation, and who among us doesn’t relish the memory of things going bang in science classes?
We take fireworks very seriously in this country. There was an almighty fuss a few weeks ago when Glasgow City Council decided to have this year’s 5 November display a day early because it would have clashed with Celtic’s home tie with Norwegian team Molde on the same evening.
And remember the opprobrium and hilarity that followed a technical hitch at the 2011 bonfire night in Oban, resulted in all the fireworks going off within one minute of each other? The same thing happened in San Diego the following year and the poor organisers were a global laughing stock for ages.
But it’s one thing wasting thousands of pounds on a pyrotechnic cock-up and quite another cocking up your fireworks so badly that people and animals get disturbed at best and injured at worst.
I’ve encountered ostensibly intelligent people – people who are in positions of responsibility in the workplace, people who are allowed to drive cars – who turn into complete bloody morons when setting off fireworks. I’ve seen people do the equivalent of looking down the barrel of a gun to check whether it’s working.
One high-achieving bloke I met at a party lost part of his hand after setting off a firework indoors. Indoors. A grown-up.
Whenever I see a firework that’s been lit and hasn’t gone off, I want everyone to leave the vicinity immediately until somebody from The Hurt Locker can come round and sort it out.
A part of me that’s in training for the vigilant disapproval of late middle-age would like to outlaw the purchase of fireworks to anybody but trained professionals, but I’m aware that’s a bit extreme.
So perhaps we could ask people to fill in a questionnaire before they’re allowed to buy the stuff. Questions could include: have you ever squirted solvent on a barbecue to boost the flame? Have you ever set fire to anything for fun? Have you ever laughed at an animal in pain? Do you have drum and base on your ringtone? Do you ever drink drive? Do you like Mrs Brown’s Boys?
I can’t even imagine how people who work for the fire service and A&E must feel having to, year after year, bail out and patch up the eejits who hurt themselves – and worse, others, particularly children – with their autumnal foolishness.
Like ballet, bull-fighting and butchery, the operation of fireworks should be left to the experts.