05 November 2009

Remembrance of Fireworks Past

My recent trip to NYC left me so temporally challenged that I barely even realised it was November and certainly only realised that Thursday this week was Bonfire Night when someone sent an email about the fireworks display in Nowheresville on Tuesday. I wasn't in Nowheresville today so that was out. I had thought about heading up to Primrose Hill as based on my positive experience on New Year's Eve, I thought there would be some local people letting off fireworks as well as the view over grander displays in the city. Unfortunately, it seems that there wouldn't be a display there and--worse--that the police would be there to ensure that no one was breaking the regulations against setting off fireworks in the royal parks.

In the end, I went running instead but while I heard a lot of bangs, I didn't get much of a view on my regular Regent's Park route. This is probably for the best because I would probably have been disappointed anyway. One of the pitfalls of attending a Cambridge college May Ball (especially if it's St Jocks') is that no other fireworks display can ever hope to measure up. In honour of Guy, though, here are my top five firework experiences:

1. The St Jocks' May Ball (2003-6). I attended my college's ball all four years I was there and the weather was pretty good for all but the last. Even then, sheltering from the rain in R's bathroom, which was at the top of one of the turrets and offered an excellent view of the display, made for a memorable experience. As for the other years, the displays were incredibly impressive--marred only by the use of music in some of the later ones. Clichéd music like the William Tell Overture too. The fireworks themselves, though, were brilliantly choreographed and went on and on, growing ever more dramatic until the big finale. In fact, the only real problem was that I wasn't very good at taking photos of fireworks back then--not that I'm much better now--so this image from the St Jocks' Ball in 2005 doesn't really capture the experience very well.

2. Cannes (2009). The stretch of the Mediterranean coast from Palm Beach to Théoule-sur-Mer, which includes Cannes manages to be dramatic and glamorous, often simultaneously. During the summer, there are huge fireworks displays once a week, each one hosted by a different European nation. The fireworks are let off from a boat and the fancy hotels even deign to turn off their lights for the duration of the show. You can pay many, many euros to eat in one of the beach-restaurants and watch the display right from your table (or your sun-bed if you'd rather just drink) or you can make like a local and head for the rocks at the Palm Beach end of the bay, take a picnic and enjoy the entertainment for free. This is what we did this summer. I only saw the Spanish posse's entry but it was pretty spectacular--it was also nice to be outside and watching fireworks at 10 p.m. without freezing to death. Watching the twinkling lights in the hills and in the armada of yachts in the harbour only added to the magic.

3. Lewes (2004). Among other things, the town of Lewes is famous for its very high pubs:residents ratio and its former residents Thomas Paine, Virginia Woolf and Arthur Conan Doyle. Anne of Cleves had a house there, although I don't think she ever visited. Lewes also has pretty special Bonfire Night celebrations, with a torch-lit parade through the centre of town, past many of the pubs. Members of the six bonfire societies then split off to different nearby locations for their own bonfire and fireworks display. Each year, a different effigy is burned--the year I went, everyone was burning parking meters (because of the new meters in place on Lewes High Street), but various local hate figures have also fallen victim to this. The fireworks themselves weren't overly impressive but the atmosphere was great and it was a really fun night.

4. Times Square, New York (2003). On New Year's Eve, 2003, I was in New York and was lucky enough to have really great tickets to see the Broadway production of The Producers, with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane and with a one-night-only cameo from Mel Brooks. Getting to the theatre was a complete nightmare with a number of roads already being fenced off. When we got out, though, it was only just over an hour until midnight so we decided to stay and watch the fireworks. Again, the fireworks themselves were fine but nothing special but the atmosphere was fantastic: frenetic, chaotic, excited, exhilarated--all of the things you normally associate with New York. Another year (I forget which), we spent post-theatre New Year's Eve on Brooklyn Bridge watching fireworks go off on all sides--that was fun too.

5. The Shire (1989-1998). As Papa's birthday is just before Bonfire Night, we always used to have a big party at our house on the closest Saturday. Well, not really a big party but four or five lots of family friends would come and we enfants terribles would get to stay up really late playing computer games, eating hot dogs (veggie hot dogs from 1992 onwards) and playing with sparklers. Naturally, as the fireworks were let off by the dads, they weren't hugely impressive but that didn't matter. It was still exciting when a big rocket went off or a Catherine wheel fell off the tree and started spinning in a threatening manner on the ground. BBQ + fireworks + good friends = young Bex bliss. One year (possibly the year we moved from London) we went to the village fireworks display instead. This was a big error as I got a spark from the bonfire in my eye and spent much of the night in A&E. Since then, I've been somewhat wary of bonfires.

Honourable mention: Wales (1999). I wasn't exactly thrilled when my parents dragged my 16-year-old self to a cottage in the middle of nowhere in North Wales to spend New Millennium Eve, especially when there was a really huge house party going on back home that was attended by all of my friends. Still, to Penmaenpool we went and, deprived of friends, shops and the internet, I was forced to go walking and hang out with my family. I wasn't impressed and told them I'd rather revise for my GCSE mocks. What a rebel. Anyway, for their birthdays the month before, my parents had been given this super-powerful firework rocket, which, when launched, was sure to cause a great amount of light, sound and general destruction. Just before midnight, we found an empty field next to the estuary and prepared for the lighting. The lights in all of the visible houses were off so obviously the residents of this exciting corner of the world had already gone to bed. I was concerned that the acoustics would cause the predicted huge noise to echo and amplify.

I shouldn't have worried... At ten seconds to midnight, the touch paper was lit and we all ran back, cowering away from what was surely going to be the loudest, most impressive firework ever. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it either wouldn't light or didn't launch. Not at all. It didn't emit one bit of sound or light. I haven't forgiven Wales yet--for either disappointment.

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