Sarah Todd: Halloween and the case for curtailing sale of fireworks

WHEN did Bonfire Night metamorphose from a jolly evening of toffee apples and a few sparklers into a fortnight-long siege?

With a birthday that falls just a few days later, November 5 was always, as a child and even into young adulthood, one of the highlights of the year.

Growing up on a farm, my father would often have a few bits and pieces he’d want to burn (before country folk couldn’t so much as blow their noses without the Health and Safety Inspectorate being involved) and we’d have a few school friends over for a bit of a gathering.

Back then, the fire was the focus. Not the fireworks like it is today. Standing around the fire talking and watching the Guy Fawkes (usually dressed in an old boiler suit and flat cap) meet his end was the main attraction.

Yes, there would be a bit of a scuffling around with an old biscuit tin and box of matches near the end. A few catherine wheels nailed onto the paddock’s post and rail fence. The odd rocket; but nothing that involved re-mortgaging the house to finance.

Fast-forward 30-odd years and there are “extravaganzas” advertised to take place from way before Halloween at the end of October until at least the middle of November. It should be law that such displays are only allowed on either November 5 or the weekend, either before or after, that falls the closest to that date.

Bonfires used to be community efforts; local families gathering up firewood and children going around with the Guy in a wheelbarrow to tap-up a few folks for some money towards the fireworks.

With a few exceptions, today’s big displays are all about making money – not getting neighbourhoods together.

As an animal owner, they are a very real stress. We have horses and they have to come in from the field, be fed, at a cost – and then the worry starts.

Will they be frightened and injure themselves; jump out and get onto the road? Friends spend a small fortune on sedatives for not only equines, but cats and dogs. Trips to the vet, expense and hassle. Do the people behind these big firework displays call around and have a friendly chat – maybe offer the odd free ticket (I wouldn’t go if they paid me; but could pass them on)?

No, of course they don’t.

Fireworks are just another way to make money. Restaurants, pubs – they all seem to be at it. There’s always a few that let go the odd Chinese lantern (another hobby horse with the barn fires they’ve started and cattle they’ve choked) for good measure.

Our health and safety obsessed world has a lot to answer for. Were we all in such peril when our fathers and grandfathers lit backyard bonfires for us? As a nation, we now seem to think we are doing the right thing by going along to a big, organised event. The right thing for who? Unless they are community-organised in aid of a good cause aren’t they just making those that can afford the public liability insurance richer?

Yes, all the fun has, for this correspondent at any rate, gone out of Bonfire Night. We usually take it in turns to go and see a display with the children; so somebody can stay at home to keep an eye on the animals. For the last few years this has been at the home where their great-grandmother lives.

All credit must go to the organisers of this. They have got ‘it’ – the magic that so many displays are missing. There is chatting and laughter, eating and drinking (soup and here’s hoping the odd swig of sherry).

Friends and neighbours are invited; in turn having a natter with the residents. The fireworks are always amazing but the old folks are right – it’s a waste of money really. It’s the hot dogs, jacket potatoes, toffee and talking that warms the cockles.

For me, there is something grotesque and deeply offensive about the amount of money that will go up in smoke over the next few weeks. If all that cash was instead put into a massive pot just think what good could be done with it. A warm meal or blanket for every homeless person?

Or simply everybody, for once, keeping the plastic cards in their pockets and not getting themselves into any more debt.

We’ve all seen the families that can probably least afford it handing over money for the biggest, noisiest - and most expensive - rockets.

Of course, fireworks seem to have become an all-year round indulgence. The way that people get them out at weddings, christenings, birthdays and so on. New Year is, for me, symbolic of society’s selfishness. It’s that ‘we’re having a party and we don’t care who is inconvenienced’ attitude. It’s far removed from the Bonfire Nights remembered through this writer’s rose-tinted spectacles.

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.