Once upon a time, I was in love with Joanna Lumley – for about a month, anyway. Sweethearts to children are no different from any other fad; boredom soon sets in and one pretty face is swiftly superseded by another, whether classmate or unattainable pin-up from the small screen. But it was fun while it lasted. In her breakthrough role of Purdey in ‘The New Avengers’, Joanna Lumley had what was once a prerequisite for a pop cultural icon – a distinctive and unique haircut; indeed, my attraction to Ms Lumley as Purdey remains one of the few occasions in which I’ve been attracted to a woman with short hair; but she was blonde, and after many subsequent years distracted by other shades, I eventually came home. Anyway, with ‘The New Avengers’ instantly installed as a Friday night fixture, pre-VCR days required being in the room when it aired; unfortunately, this necessity clashed with Bonfire Night festivities early in the series’ run. My protests fell on deaf ears and I was dragged along to a firework display because it was clearly what I was supposed to enjoy at that age. I probably sulked a bit, though I did get to see the ‘lost’ episode in the end, albeit a full ten years later during a repeat run.
I suppose Bonfire Night as an event has the greatest appeal to younger children; I don’t recall getting that excited about it after the ‘reluctantly foregoing Purdey’ incident of 1976, though occasional visits to public displays – usually in the grounds of working men’s clubs – continued for a few years thereafter. These were punctuated by the back garden private display, generally the most anticlimactic events of all; and it never helped that it was usually raining and freezing. The sulphurous odour in the air on November 5th does, however, remain one of the year’s signposts, even if the trend today seems to be to hold the public displays on the nearest Friday or Saturday to the actual day. Like anyone who lived a 70s childhood, fireworks were also heavily entwined with the shock-horror public information film portrayals of Bonfire Night; we were guaranteed never to forget the damage these miniature explosives could do in the wrong hands, though that didn’t prevent unscrupulous newsagents flogging bangers to the kind of ruffians who patrolled the playgrounds of Britain like prepubescent Al Capones.
Not having any four-legged pets as a child, the impact of fireworks on cats and dogs didn’t intrude into my own world until an adult; I then saw for myself what a torrid time they can have of it come November 5th – something not helped when one resides in (as I did at the time) a densely-populated urban neighbourhood with a good few weeks of constant explosions both before and after Bonfire Night. My cat in particular was less spooked by big bangs than by the shrieking, screeching whizz often accompanying them. Keeping an unsettled pet company indoors when four walls and double glazing prove pitifully ineffective at soundproofing made me feel quite useless in my protective role; it also fostered an irritability with the availability of fireworks to the general public. Some may regard the banning of their over (or under) the counter sale and limiting them to official, regulated public displays as a symptom of ‘political correctness gone mad’; but it’s one British tradition I actually wouldn’t mind being governed by the strictest of health & safety measures.
Bearing in mind its historical significance and fiery political roots, is it pure coincidence that Boris chose November 5th to plunge the country into its second nationwide lockdown, using the same emotional blackmail and discredited stats as before? Of course, during Lockdown 1 everybody had a great time, nobody started believing Twitter was real life, nobody rioted and nobody died, so this is evidently a laudable policy. In Lockdown 2, I should imagine firework displays – either public or private – will be cancelled along with Christmas, and it’s gonna be such fun. Mind you, fireworks as a metaphor can be applied to any news story unrelated to that luckless terrorist Guy Fawkes. Right now, a country that doesn’t celebrate the foiling of a plot to blow the English Parliament to kingdom come is in the middle of an inferno that has already spanned several months and seems set to span several months more. Whilst we nasty Brits beat them to it by burning down the White House way back in 1814, today’s flames may still cut a swathe along Pennsylvania Avenue before the year is out, and a remake of the 2000 debacle between Dubya and Gore could well constitute the climax of the democratic process before the ugly aftermath is over. It’s gonna be such fun.
Ah, yes – fun. Remember that? There’s an uncomfortable TV interview with Sid Vicious filmed shortly before his death, one in which the interviewer asks him what he’d like to do in the coming months. Vicious replies, ‘I’d like to have fun’; it’s a curiously childlike reply, yet oddly affecting when remembering he was barely 21 at the time and succumbed to a fatal heroin overdose not long after. Maybe that was his idea of fun by then, though having lived in that world a long, long time ago, I don’t recall much fun myself bar the occasional shot of the blackest strain of gallows humour. And perhaps I was ahead of the game; there’s as much fun floating around these islands at the moment as can be found in your average crack-den on a bleak midwinter’s afternoon. The external world has finally caught up with my internal one and I can’t say it’s something that imbues me with a sense of satisfaction. Call me naive, but I expected better.
And how cruel this of all days was selected as the latest doomed D-Day by a gaggle of intellectual dwarves and their ‘opposition’ numbers, for Purdey or no, there was once a kind of magic to November 5th. If its aroma was one of sulphur, its taste was a toffee apple or a slice of parkin, and its place as a bright light on a childhood calendar otherwise only illuminated by individual birthdays and communal Christmas was assured. Maybe the dangerous elements so driven home by public information films added to its unique status; if a TV drama happened to feature a Bonfire Night storyline, you knew in advance a child was going to be maimed by a firework in it. At least one ‘Coronation Street’ episode from the 70s saw this happen, and the ‘Blue Peter’ team would always remind the audience to ‘take care’ on the edition closest to November 5th in a manner that still appears sincere. The message has now become characteristic of an all-year-round catchphrase for our own times – one that shares the same sentiment but is often said with the kind of conviction that accompanies ‘Have a nice day’.
The tactics the Central Office of Information employed to scare the public into submission on November 5th are now employed for less benign purposes, and at least there were laughs to be had with the PIF melodramas as you spotted minor actors who’d appeared in ‘The Sweeney’; there may have been a Project Fear factor involved, but there was no Project Browbeat, Defeat and Demoralise. Masks may shield a smile, but just look at the eyes – ain’t no laughing to be found there. Yes, there was once magic on this day, and however much magic is trashed and tarnished by events and their orchestrators, the things we hold closest to our hearts are fiercely immune to it; they can’t take away everything. Sparks have flown and the Earth has moved on November 5th; toffee apples have been scoffed, Catherine wheels have failed to spin, hands have been held and dreams have been woven. Take a bunch of bangers, Boris and Sir Keir; I know you’re both extremely thick, but I don’t need to tell you where you can shove them. Dream on.
© The Editor