Bonfire Night


With each year that passes I grow increasingly aware that very little of what I supposedly learned at school has survived the perilous trek to adulthood. Memories remain, of course; some of them indelibly etched, as in acid, on the metaphorical brass of my consciousness, where they will remain until the day my mind finally deserts me. But too many more are blurred – held, tantalisingly close, just beneath the surface of my waking mind. This is, I fear, a non-negotiable aspect of the human condition.

Although I’ve never been a particular fan of poetry, one such blurry recollection concerns a poem. I’m afraid I’ve no idea who wrote it and scouring the internet has proved continually fruitless, but I do know it was called ‘The Rocket’. Within its ten or twelve expertly crafted lines it held a power that has stayed with me to this day.

When I was very young, my father used to build a bonfire each November. With the clarity and understanding of hindsight, I realise that the weeks he seemed to spend collecting wood were probably only two or three days. The sense of expectancy, though, was very real indeed. Watching as the pile of old window frames, pallets and dying shrubbery grew at the end of the garden, I could barely contain my excitement. Then, on the day of the fire itself, he would return home with a small box of fireworks. They would be placed carefully out of reach, an unattainable chest of brightly coloured and tightly wound treasures, each brimming with its own variety of magical potential.

As often as not, the first few days of November would have been wet. The damp pile of timber might need to be liberally doused in petrol but would always eventually ignite, a flash of sparks nonchalantly showering the neighbourhood. One by one, the fireworks would be removed, the Catherine Wheel pinned to the fence and the Roman Candle sunk into the ground. One by one, they would illuminate the autumn darkness and shatter the peace of the night.

And then the finale. With great reverence, a milk bottle would be set on the ground. Hushed awe would descend as the rocket was brought forward and placed into the launcher, its slender stem poised against the cold glass rim. For a moment it would stand there, an imperious cardboard Saturn V, King of the Fireworks. With great ceremony it would be lit. For a few seconds it would fizz, a flicker of flame inching its way along the touch paper. Then, just as the anticipation was too much to bear, it would hurl itself skywards with a breathless whoosh. On and on as it valiantly charged for the stars, as far and as fast as it could before the fuel was exhausted and it ultimately expired in a dazzling blaze of glory.

‘The Rocket’ captured the moment superbly. It encapsulated a childhood memory I’m sure many of us share and I’d dearly love to read it again. My search will continue. Why am I thinking about it now? Because last night, as I listened to the pops, bangs and whistles of the various displays, it occurred to me that something has been lost. Bonfire Night has become a highly sanitised occasion. Everyone attends organised events – the domestic fire is largely no more. Our society’s ceaseless attempts to ameliorate risk have meant we’ve done away with a simple pleasure. Children no longer experience the joys of collecting wood for the fire, ‘liberating’ rickety fence panels or half-empty tins of paint. They no longer look on as Dad ignores the fireworks code year after year, having to slip and slide across a muddy lawn as he runs for his life from the dud he has thrown into the fire.

Yet again we’ve removed all the risk. And yet again, all of the fun.