ALEX WOODCOCK-CLARKE says a noisy segment of the British population wants to extinguish fireworks
And God said, “Let there be light”: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good. God did more than that. He gave it to Man so Man could paint the night skies with stars and fountains of light to the music of thunder. Now it is the modern age, and God is dead. New voices arise from the void, querulous and offended, and what they say (and they are legion) is: “Let’s snuff out fireworks!”.
Is it me? Did I go mad? As I walked along the Bois de Boulogne did an anvil fall on my head in the manner of a Looney Toons cartoon? Is a large, statistically significant demographic of the British population truly mustering to eradicate joy? Has prevailing opinion really come down in favour of darkness and silence?
Transitory and brilliant is the history of fireworks. Though their origins are lost in the smoke of pre-history, the historian of chemistry, Professor J R Partington, notes they were known to the Chinese by the end of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1206-1368 AD) and used as “arrows of flying fire” at the siege of Kai-feng Fu. By the end of the 15th century, one mandarin scholar, Wan Hu of the middle Ming dynasty, devised a flying machine from two large kites, a wicker armchair and 47 large rockets so that he might escape troubled times and go and live on the Moon. His slaves ignited the blue touchpaper and retired. After the gigantic explosion, Wan Hu and his machine were never seen again. Some are sceptical Wan Hu’s lift-off ever took place (its first mention only came in the October 1909 edition of Scientific American) but in 1970 the International Astronomical Union named an ancient crater lunar crater after him. Fifty-two kilometres wide, it is as good a place as any to mark his landing or, considering its depth of five kilometres, impact.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, fireworks were bringing colour and fire to the Enlightenment all over Europe. Not of any historic importance themselves there was no historical figure which they did not throw into relief. Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, incorporated a regiment of fireworkers into his army to put on victory displays. Peter the Great of Russia initiated the tradition of setting off pyrotechnics at New Year’s Eve. In 1693, he put on a high fireworks scenario, cued by a 56 cannon salute, which included a fiery portrait of Hercules prying open the jaws of a lion while live dwarves, dressed as cherubs, “desported themselves madly” within the burning frame.
In France, Louis XIV instituted a tradition of firework displays in the garden of Versailles, some of which went on for five days at a time. The climax of one huge festival entitled, “The Pleasures of the Enchanted Island” culminated in a blazing battle between three sea monsters, which spread to the “Palace of Enchantment” and led to a volcanic cataract of fireworks which exploded the very island itself and blew the wigs off the Sun-King and 600 invited guests.
Of course, wherever there is excitement, there is danger. Fireworks have never been any exception. George Plympton, the editor of The Paris Review and a noted fireworks aficionado, cited Ralph Waldo Emerson: “As soon as there is life, there is danger” in recalling the immense pyrotechnical displays that took place in 1749 to mark the ending of the War of Austrian Succession. At one, in Paris, “there were forty killed and nearly three hundred wounded” when two competing clans of artificiers, one French and one Italian, “quarrelling for precedence in lighting the fire, both lighted at once and blew up the whole”.
Something similar happened on the same date in England. An enormous pyrotechnical machine was built in Green Park by the famous Italian fireworks designer, Gaetano Ruggieri. It was over 114 feet high and designed to be fired while Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, especially composed for the occasion, was debuted before George II and his retinue. On the night, the machine blew up prematurely causing Ruggieri to attack Charles Frederick, the English comptroller of the Woolwich Depot, with his sword; a man fell off the machine to his death; a boy tumbled from a tree, also fatally; another man toppled into a pond and drowned; a crowd gathering outside Buckingham House panicked and many bones were broken; people on the Surrey shore tried to escape on boats that were so in danger of being swamped their crews threw interlopers into the Thames in batches. The diarist Horace Walpole saw a young girl whose party dress was set on fire by a wayward rocket. “She would have been destroyed if some person had not the presence of mind to strip her clothes off immediately”. On the plus side, there were fewer casualties than it might have been expected since it transpired the Duke of Richmond had previously confiscated twenty-five tons of fireworks on the grounds of “public safety” (and used them at his own party three weeks later). At the end of the evening, Ruggieri was arrested and sent to the Tower.
Walpole’s verdict on the night?
Whatever you hear of the fireworks, that is short of the prettiest entertainment in the world, don’t believe it. I have never passed a more agreeable evening
Few places in the world gave fireworks as warm a welcome as in the British Isles. Alan St. Hill Brock, a member of the great Brock dynasty of British fireworkers (or, more properly, pyrotechnicians) speculates that it was Roger Bacon (1214-1294), a friar known also as a doctor mirabilis, was the actual (if dubious) inventor of gunpowder, as its written formula first appeared in his 1267 Opus Majus treatise. Certainly, one Mr. Guido Fawkes was a fan of British fireworks since the 3,400 pounds of explosive he smuggled into the House of Commons in 1605 were purchased from Pains, the Salisbury-based (and still operating) fireworks manufacturer.
Fireworks have painted the backdrop of British history throughout recent centuries, adding size and drama to the grand events like royal weddings or birthdays or jubilees, or great victories when we used to have them. The enormous extravaganza of 19 July 1919 commissioned from the Brocks fireworks family to celebrate the Treaty of Versailles was the largest show ever put on in the UK, perhaps even in the world. Prints and engravings of the time show the entirety of Hyde Park alive with rocketry, aerial bombs and hundreds of curlicue serpent shells. The finale alone was based on 2,000 rockets exploding in the air at the same instant.
What may be more recurrent in the national experience and perhaps more British are not the giant displays but the smaller, private experiences. Watching dad in the back garden trying to launch a two-inch rocket in the rain with a sodden box of matches. A line of school pals huddled together spelling rude words in the air with sparklers. The Scout pack watching through binoculars a display in the Co-Op carpark lit by the local vicar who has insisted on safety protocols that rival a guided missile test. Such fleeting moments that put the power of Zeus or Thor, all their fire and thunder, in your hands and the hands of people just like you – that’s the British experience. And it’s that experience that a new surge of anti-firework campaigners wish to extinguish.
2020 has seen a surge in resentment against the use and enjoyment of fireworks. Her Majesty’s Government has spent time and money this year reviewing nine live petitions submitted by members of the public to ban, limit, ration, restrict, weaken or otherwise squelch fireworks (out of 164 submitted). The one in 2019 received 753,000 signatures. The most recent one (which runs into 2021) already has 278,000 signatures, well over the threshold to trigger a parliamentary debate. This petition demands fireworks be strictly limited to state-licensed displays. “Better enforcement of existing law is insufficient”, the petitioners insist. Vulnerable people and animals must be protected from “the distress and anxiety caused by unexpected firework[s]”.
There was something approaching ecstasy amongst supporters of a ban when COVID restrictions led to the cancelling of 5th of November firework displays in London, Sussex, the Midlands, Manchester, Yorkshire, Devon and Newcastle, Perth and the Highlands. The renowned Skinningrove Bonfire, in North Yorkshire, which features complex Heath Robinson-type wooden structures like castles and pirate ships, was squelched. Further south in Lewes, East Sussex, Bonfire Night celebrations, which usually attracts 80,000 people, were abandoned, as were the riotous Tar Barrels celebrations at Ottery St Mary in Devon, a tradition dating back to the 17th century. It was the same story for the event at Kenilworth Castle, one of the most-anticipated fireworks displays in the Midlands.
And don’t think you can make up for the cancellation of the organised displays by setting off a few bottle rockets in the back garden. Devon and Somerset Fire Service, for example, reminded anyone caught in breach of lockdown rules on household mixing, even in their own garden, faced a fine starting at £200. If you were found to be the organiser of a gathering of more than 30 people, like a firework display for family and friends, the fine rockets up to £10,000. “Think about your neighbours, particularly older people or those who are self-isolating, pets and, of course, those of us in the emergency services”, says Paul Jennings, the assistant commissioner for fire safety at the London Fire Brigade, says. Yes, think about us. Us, the local bureaucrats, the safety enforcers, the fun police, your paid servants.
“Woohoo!” was the persistent and general reaction on the Facebook page of FAB (FireworkABatement) as news of each of these cancellations rolled in. FAB is not a very large activist group on the face of it, with only a little over than 20,000 supporters on its new media channels. It’s led by Julie Doorne, a fine-looking woman in late-middle age who runs a horse-related business. All she does, and does it very successfully, is exchange information about domestic firework horror stories with like-minded types and then watch them bounce back and forth, always amplifying, always gaining force across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like until they’re picked up by the local and national media. “Puppy was Literally Scared to Death from Cardiac Arrest Due to Fireworks” is one of hers from last year. It’s about an adorable 18-month old black lab, Molly, who heard a firework go off at local firework display, instantly had a heart attack and keeled over, stone dead. If that incident was not terrible enough, the accompanying FAB release adds: “Moreover, some animals also mistakenly eat the remnants of fireworks, and it often results [sic] to choking and death. Lastly, the fumes that fireworks emit might be poisonous to some animals”. This story then appeared unquestioned in Metro, the Independent and the Daily Record.
Ms. Doorne is not asking for much. She doesn’t want to ban all fireworks. Only those used by private individuals. And she doesn’t want to stop fireworks being used whenever we want. Just restrict them to November 5th, Diwali and some other official public holidays when they can be let off in council-sanitised environments.
Well, who cares what she thinks? And yet her campaign has now been adopted, almost point-for-point, by the billion-pound campaigning charity, the RSPCA. Both the Welsh and Scots governments have promised “urgent reviews” of existing laws. Children’s charities and those associated with the elderly and the military veterans are also falling into line. Slowly but surely, the big battalions of moral suasion are coming into line. If you think the humble whizz-bang, the sparkler and 800 years of history can stand against them, think again.
The inevitable consequence of welfare democracy is the dictatorship of “the vulnerable”. The poor, the sick, the stupid, the drama student, you know, chumps. Unlike other tyrannies, this one is babyishly impotent (power vests, of course, in its state-appointed or media self-appointed “carers”) in all respects except one. To wit, stamping on the fun of other people so long, of course, as the fun is utterly inconsequential, and the other people in question are not like themselves. So, after fox hunting, ready salted crisps and guffawing at the sex lives of celebrities, the next simple pleasure scheduled for cancellation maybe not this year, maybe not the next but very soon will be – bang! – fireworks.
ALEX WOODCOCK-CLARKE is the author of the New York Times bestseller, 50 Reasons To Hate The French