My Firework Fetish

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I have what I term a Firework fetish. If you ask anyone who’s close to me they’ll tell you I’m fanatical for Pyrotechnics.
I don’t just love the effects(they’re heavenly, specifically rockets, the bigger the better!) but I love the smell of the smoke, the smell of an unlit firework(although since the demise of the proverbial “Blue touchpaper” they don’t smell as good. Blue touchpaper had a fantastic smell all of it’s own!)and the smell of a spent firework.

10 years ago, fireworks were an entirely different beast. For starters they were louder and more dangerous. And even the smaller fireworks in a box packed a punch. And of course you could buy loose fireworks, nowadays they’re all boxed, with the exception of cakes and larger fireworks of that ilk. This is because the Government doesn’t believe ANY of us can be responsible adults, and really does believe not selling individual fireworks prevents accidents. Yeah, right.
40 years ago, well hey, we were all blowing ourselves up with the most exciting range of pyros you can imagine. It’s a wonder my generation aren’t limbless freaks, disfigured, charred torsos and little else.

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Tho’ my lovely Dad always brought home a stash of fireworks on November 5th when I was really small,  wrapped in a brown paper bag, once I got to proper pocket money age it was down to me to get my own, tho’ Pa, Jed and Tom would make contributions.
The first shop I bought fireworks from was Tickners, in Mill road, in Maldon. They had a “Firework club”, a way to save a little money each week. This usually kicked off late Spring/early Summer. Every week I’d go into Tickners sweet shop and put a few old pence into my club so that by the 5th of November I’d have quite a few shillings to buy my fireworks from their wonderful range, displayed in a big glass cabinet, to the left of the door as you walked in. I even had a little card with the amounts I’d paid in, week by week. This made me feel very responsible, not to mention very excited!
Mr Tickner was a very tall chap, but had a problem with one of his legs. I’ve always thought it was a tin leg, at least that’s what us kids believed in the 1960’s. But my gal Sal remembers he had a huge stack healed shoe, so perhaps it may have been a Rickets deformity from his childhood.
The shop floor was akin to Woolworth’s, dark, small, varnished floor boards. Mr Tickners special boot made a loud clomping noise as he walked around the shop. Mrs Ticker was tiny compared to her husband and in my memory I can see her wearing a floral pinny, as most women did for working in, in those days.

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And that glass cabinet, for a few short weeks, held now unimaginable delights.
Bangers, like small sticks of Dynamite, the most portable Firework , with their big brother, the Cannon, which WAS a small stick of Dynamite! A friend of mine in the mid to late 60’s, who lived across the way from my family in Fitch’s crescent, Gerald Moule, did some really neat tricks with Cannons.
When the Prom lake was still as it should be(for swimming in) he’d get an old Marvel milk can(that must’ve been some remnant of the second World War, powdered milk)which was probably a half litre size in new money, put about an inch and a half of sand in, put a Cannon in the sand, lit it, jammed the lid on, then threw it in the lake! Such was the explosive power of the Cannon that it would blow the lid off the tin resulting in quite sizeable bubbles, reminiscent of the end of the opening titles for “The Prisoner”. Cool or what? Gerald also had not one but TWO Johnny Seven guns, the most desirable toy of the mid to late 60’s, the most rocking boy’s weapon ever! It had various launchers, detachable guns, not to mention a sub machine gun. The first was a birthday gift from his parents, the second he bought as a result of gradual “aquisition” of money from his Mother’s purse, a shilling here, a shilling there.

There was a grenade launcher on the top of the Johnny Seven gun, and Gerald’s was modified to accommodate a Cannon, it’s blue touch paper just visible.

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I pray that Gerald eventually found his vocation as a demolition expert, or a bomb chap in the army, such was his devotion to pyros. The last memory I have of the boy was meeting him on his trolly(not a shoddy trolly, but the wood was aged, unlike my pristine machine)him pulling out a stubby 3 inch high firework, breaking it in half, emptying it and making a pile of gunpowder on the pavement and igniting it. This was what he termed a “Genie”. It went off with an impressive woosh which scorched our eyelashes and brows. All this, and in daylight too!

Every time I’ve visited North Tenerife, it’s always amazed me how the locals have no concern as to whether it is day or night when lighting fireworks, especially when they’re celebrating Fiesta.  In the beautiful little village of San Vicente,  there are 2 firework factories on the edge of town, both run by brothers. The locals say that each year throughout the Fiesta in February, the 2 brothers vy for pyrotechnic supremacy.
For a pyromaniac like myself it’s a wonderful experience, akin to the nightly finale (tho’ obviously not QUITE as big)at Disneyworld. The sky is full of light and fire for what seems 15 plus minutes, and of course they fire them from the mountains on the edge of the ocean, with spectacular results.
Yet in the day time too, tho’ to much less effect, you see and hear what I initially thought may have been excavations involving dynamite, seeing brief flashes, hearing bangs ricocheting around the mountains, and major smoke. Just some crazy Guanches throwing a few in the sky!

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When Ma and Pa and I used to visit Nan Moore in Hertford, there was a shop really close by, that sold Bangers all year round. The type that came in a blister pack, probably 6 or 8 of them, sadly I don’t recall the make. It was an odd little toy shop, come model shop, fairly small, but the shop window was crammed with goodies, big Airfix kits, balls of every type, jokes and novelties and on a day of window shopping/toy dreaming, I espied the Bangers. I believe it was the same shop I’d bought some spectacularly green coloured luminous(i.e. glow in the dark) paint. This paint was marvellous, and really glowed a very bright luminous green in the darkness of the old coal shed, by the back door of our house in Fitch’s crescent. Trouble was, after a quarter of an hour or so of painting I began to feel very nauseous and headachy. I can only think this was “Radioluminescent” paint, which contained low levels of Radium, a Radioactive substance!
As Steve Marriot remarked to me around the time of Chernobyl, “Glowing in the dark could be a gas, get me a lead lined Limo!”

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Bangers obviously were dangerous if not treated with some care, and when I was 10 or 11, an older kid who we’ll call “Tin Tin” almost met his end as a result. At Maldon refuse tip some kids had found the wreck of an old car, and Tin Tin had decided to throw Cannons down into the petrol tank, via the filler cap, in the hope of igniting whatever gasoline remained. The first couple seemed to fizzle out, but I got a real bad feeling about it, and told Tin Tin there was a potential for the car to explode. He just laughed and said that’s exactly what he wanted. I hightailed it on my Chopper, pretty sharpish as well, and so did most of the other kids. When we got about 2 or 3 minutes away, sure enough the car did explode. It wasn’t sufficient to blow Tin Tin to bits, but the oil sump had exploded, showering him with hot oil. Miraculously, he wasn’t blinded. But the hot molten oil burnt his face, and stayed in his skin. After a few days in hospital I saw him at school, looking like he had the worst case of black Acne you ever did see! And his face was scarred with oil for years, certainly into adulthood, no doubt a constant reminder of his stupidity………….poor man.

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At some point in the late 1960’s, Tickners was suddenly no more. I believe poor Mr Tickner died, and seem to remember Mrs Tickner struggling for a while on her own, because for sure(and trust me, certainly NOT me, because I was brought up to be honest and not do “bad” things, a goody goody as Will assured  me recently)most of the kids that went in there to buy loose sweets tried to pinch as many as they could whilst the Tickner’s eyes were averted!
I vaguely recall going in there with my Ma after Mr Tickner died, to give her condolences and moral support.
So a new sweet shop appeared next door, run by a Mrs Mansfield. She too ran a firework club, and I recall the cards that showed my weekly deposits were white and even more important looking than the Tickners. Groovy thinks young Terence, but hey, what were those exotic looking bubblegum cards in Mrs Mansfield’s that I’d not seen elsewhere? They were cards that were to change many young lives at that point in the 1960’s, they were cards that were collected more furtively and obsessively than any other, they were cards SO exciting and dangerous that 40 plus years on, the incredible  thrill still haunts. They were CIVIL WAR CARDS!!! Or to give them their correct title “Civil War News”cards. Aside from the new and totally scrummy gum(a type of sugar free flavoured plastic!), aside from the counterfeit Confederate bills enclosed in the wax paper outer wrapper(we were rich, maaan!), the cards were just……..well they were horrific. Gore, blood, gun wounds, bayonets, the one card that sticks in  my mind was “Wall of corpses”, Yankie soldiers using a mound of their dead comrades as a shield against enemy guns. Looking at the grisly images was tough, yet I believed it was very adult, because it made me realise that things like that REALLY happened, and that whilst they were disturbing(and one never knew what perverse atrocities would be in the next pack)you simply had to accept them and get over it. But the “getting over it” bit was the rush, the thrill, the car crash “rubbernecking”, “a crowd of people turned away, but I just had to look” moment.

And the style of art, the actual painting on the cards, was fascinating. Lots of gaudy colours, and bold images, which evoked the paintings and graphics on fairground rides at the time, the images of Lions and Tigers on a “Speedway” ride, the reason why I loved Clovis Trouille’s paintings, because they reminded me of the fairground(a place I adored as a child, sometimes the smell of a diesel engine will bring the fairground thrill back to me) and the Civil war cards. Bold, big images brightly coloured with gold outlines, a unique combination of colours. And looking at the words I’ve just written evoke another major thought, Circus! And firework wrappers and labels.
Of course like all great things, once adults looked at the cards, once the media had exposed these “shocking images” they were taken off the market, deemed “too horrible” for childish consumption. Like Bangers. Like “Space Shuttle” fireworks. And Jumping Jacks……

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So into my adulthood, my obsession ran unabated. And with better financing, we could really Rock!
My dear friend, George Coventry, who sadly passed away September last year, always had access to a remarkable selection of fireworks.
He “knew a chap” who sold fireworks by the score, and at very keen prices.
A word about dear George. It would take me a whole other article to do the rascal justice, but as a bit of background about the man, well he was an Eastender proper, and an “Arthur Daley” type to boot. I used to joke and call him “Da Godfather”. He was a warm, caring man, and took a shine to me, and treated me like I was family, always asking me if I needed money or help of any kind. He had a seriously illustrious past. He told me he went out for a pack of ciggies once, and didn’t return home for 3 months! Essentially he went on a massive 3 month bender, and lived in the pub!
This marvellous Alcoholiday ended one morning when a very hungover George asked the landlady of the pub if him and his pals(all small time villans to a man)had behaved themselves the previous night. She replied that they had,  until one of his mates had shot the clock off the wall  with a fair sized handgun, in disgust at closing time!
George had proper Mod roots, and rode a Lambretta scooter in the mid 1960’s, and wore a Beatle suit. He loved music with a passion, and frequently argued with his family as to what year such and such a record was released. It was then down to Terence to settle, by consulting my beaten up old Guinness book of hit singles. I loved George. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say he was like a Father to me, and his wonderful arsenal of pyros made our relationship all the more attractive.
I’d buy display rockets off him, the size of which I’d never handled before, 6 in a heavy duty cardboard tube about 4 feet long, with beautiful “Flame” artwork on the outside. And big packs of rockets, 20 to a pack, which were just fabulous.  And at Christmas time a few years ago, Al and I decided to “Nuke the Neighbourhood”.

Psychedelic Alan in Biscuit wood

Psychedelic Alan in Biscuit wood

Al’s house at that time had a very narrow back yard, maybe 12 feet wide by 30 feet long, so we’d fire the rockets from the edge of the garden, towards the road. As it it was Christmas we’d decided we’d fire mostly display rockets, tho’ Al had a couple of cakes and a fair sized Catherine wheel, with which he managed to set fire to the neighbour’s fence. Oh how we laughed watching a fairly drunk Al(the son of a Fireman!) attempting to quell the blaze with several small glasses of water. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
But the display rockets, oh joy, so big, so powerful, a real thick fizzy whooosh when they went up. When they went up, that is.
Because unknown to us Georgie’s pyros would contain a few “Pups” as Al named them. i.e. life threatening, defective, dangerous explosives.
I lit most of the rockets as per usual, and when you light lots of similar pyros you get an idea of how long they will dwell on  the launcher before takeoff. This particular rocket just didn’t feel right, and after a good 5 second gap it still hadn’t left the launcher. The smoke from the rocket’s tail was phenomenal. At that point I said “Oh F**k!” and ran like buggery! Too late, the rocket exploded in the launcher. The immediate effect was  the bang, undoubtedly the loudest, most deafening, most Tinnitus inspiring explosion I have ever heard, it was so loud it shook the path underneath us, with a huge fog of smoke(hmm…delicious)very Apocalips Now, smell of Napalm etc. But wait, you ain’t ever seen a brocade of purple stars go off a mere 10 foot away from you! It was so bright it must’ve been etched on our Retinas for the rest of the evening! And when we got over the initial shock, we went into fits of hysterical laughter, as much with relief that we were still alive as anything else. The smoke took ages to clear, and I really expected our faces to be black and smoke charred, like a Roadrunner cartoon! Al said that the sparks that hit the window “misted the glass” which he tried to clean off a number of occasion, to no avail. Obviously the sparks were so hot they had started to melt the glass when they hit!
Alan’s old gaff was the scene for my 50th birthday too, and of course I had to have pyros in celebration. I think I took 60 fair sized rockets, unfortunately when, as Heggy puts it, I started “parting my hair” with them, in a somewhat inebriated state, he and Al finished the job of firing.

And lest we forget, the man with the plan, the dude who started it all, the chap we have to thank for our grand firework tradition,  some say the only real democrat in English politics, the Godfather of Gunpowder, the Ayatollah of Rock’n’Roll-a, Mr Guy Fawkes.

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Guy Fawkes is notorious for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He was placed in charge of executing the plot because of his military and explosives experience. The plot, masterminded by Robert Catesby, was an attempt by a group of religious conspirators to kill King James I of England, his family, and most of the aristocracy, by blowing up the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster during the State Opening of Parliament. Unfortunately for him this plot was uncovered and Guy was arrested. After several days of torture(!) he admitted being part of the plot and was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered.
As the noose was put around his neck, he flung himself from the scaffold, killing himself, and avoiding the dreadful second and third part of his punishment.

As kids we’d go out “Guying”. We’d make a figure out of old clothes, stuffed with newspaper, and put a Guy Fawkes mask on his head, usually given free with one comic or another, and take him out on our trolleys or a wheel barrow, and ask “Penny for the Guy”.  See, we were even allowed to beg as children! And of course a few good souls would give us money, some of which we’d keep for the big day, a little would have to be salted away for a pack of Bangers. The Guy was then stuck on top of the bonfire on the 5th, a supposed celebration of the King’s escape on that fateful eve in 1605.

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Bangers, Cannons, Jumping Jacks, Ariel Bombshells, Mine of Serpents, Hurricanes and Flying Saucers, and all the beautiful fireworks of the 60’s and 70’s, a fantastic piece of our history and culture, all sadly missed but still celebrated and loved!
Let’s light up the skies and celebrate November the 5th.
And the 6th. And 7th if you like. And Christmas…..and Birthdays, Diwali, the New Year……………….

 

10 Responses to “My Firework Fetish”

  1. I just had a couple more flashbacks to Tickners in the 1960’s.
    First up, like so many shops in that era, as you opened the door to the shop a quite loud bell would ring. It was on some sort of hinge, as it opened the top of the door pushed the hinge and the bell rung. The bell looked like the type they used at schools back then, to signify break time ending. Obviously the bell ringing told the Tickners customers had entered the shop, a primitive security device if you will.

    Also, I recall entering the shop early evening sometimes, and despite the fact the bell had rung, they didn’t come through.
    The door into the shop from their house had a glass panel on top, covered with a net curtain. You could see through the curtain, tho’ not clearly, through to their front room, where both Mr and Mrs Tickner sat in winged armchairs, watching tv. Eventually, usually Mrs Tickner would come through and serve me.
    Just as well I was a goody goody, ay Will?!?

  2. Great article ‘Rence! Do you remember the time when I lived in Wentworth Meadows, we had a firework party but it was raining. No problem, we simply let them off in the conservatory! I can still taste the gunpowder, it lingered in the house for weeks afterwards, I think that we may have set fire to the kitchen floor too….or was that another day?….

  3. Cheers Ears, and yes I do recall the “Indoor Fireworks’ eve.
    The floor fire was a close escape on your behalf involving a flaming glass of Absinthe I believe………

  4. How Tickners and Mansefields side by side made enough money to keep going I dont know,but they were very much a part of my childhood.
    I suppose because our parents knew the Tickners it was the shop most frequented by us. However Mansefields was the only place where you could purchase not only fireworks without your parents consent, but a 5 pack of Weights cigarette’s, despite being under age, no questions asked!!

  5. they were cool

  6. I had a lovely memory of George Coventry today.
    We were at the Mill Beach once having a few pints, and numerous people were coming up to George asking about this and that.
    George was going on about “snides” to one of these people.
    I must have looked confused because he explained that was the Cockney term for counterfeit goods. I said to him, he must think me and the locals were serious “carrot crunchers”(country bumpkins). He said no, not at all, he’d met most of his best friends in Essex……in Borstal!!!

  7. Hello Terence,

    Sorry to bother you, but I couldn`t help reading your interesting blog on fireworks. I belong to the `United Kingdom Pyrotechnics Society`, we are a groups of amature & professional enthusiasts, historians, pyrotechnists, chemists etc etc.

    We are holding our annual general meeting this year at; Old Barn, Esholt Lane, Baildon, Bradford, BD17 7RJ on Saturday 9th April 2011. starts at 1.30pm to about 9.00pm

    Its free, all are welcome to come along, if you have any old firework related stuff you would like to bring with you, we would be most interested.
    There will be talks, demonstrations, films, firework projects and a firework display to finish off. buffet lunch is free.

    Please take a look at our forum when you find the website, just type-in `UKPS`.

    Yes in case your wondering, Im related to Brock`s fireworks!

  8. I’m filled with mad, childlike glee, at the thought of this year’s Bonfire night. Rest assured plenty of powder will be burnt! Let’s have a great time, but please, every body, be safe. No injuries, no hassle, let’s not give the antis a single reason to grumble. Let’s celebrate and be safe!
    Terence

  9. As I said to my mate Martin Weselby, “may the Fawkes be with you!”(copyright Terence Ruffle November 2011).

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