Saturday, January 03, 2009

Surely a bang is better than a whimper?

So how did you see in the New Year? A few drinks with friends or family? A night out at a nice pub or club? Or maybe you set off a few fireworks in the back garden? Certainly, in central London, fireworks were the order of the evening with 15 minutes (and £1.6 million) of the most extraordinary pyrotechnics I’ve ever seen. And, while watching the eruption of the London eye from the comfort of a big leather armchair with a Bombay Sapphire and tonic in one hand and a Terry's dark chocolate orange in the other, I was struck by the oddity of celebrating an event with explosives.

There is almost nothing good to be said about gunpowder. As you probably know, it was discovered by Chinese Taoist alchemist monks some time in the 9th century when they were looking for an elixir of immortality. In one of the biggest ironies of all time, their 'black powder' went on to do exactly the opposite, cutting short the lives of millions - possibly billions of people. Its first casualties are described in a Taoist text called Zhenyuan Miaodao Yaol├╝e which dates from around the year 850AD:

'Some have heated together sulphur, realgar and saltpetre with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house where they were working burned down.'

Right from the outset, gunpowder was dangerous and a menace to humanity. And as time went on, its use in more and more advanced weaponry proved the case beyond all reasonable doubt. And yet, we're allowed to play with it in our back gardens and usually do so when we're celebrating. And, in the UK anyway, celebration usually includes alcohol. Gunpowder and alcohol. It's not a marriage made in Heaven is it? But you don't need to be in your cups to fall foul of the black powder.

A few years ago, a teacher here in High Wycombe was killed while setting off a fireworks display for the schoolkids. Every year, there are numerous fatalities and injuries. The most recent statistics I could find date from 1995 when the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR) reported that over the Halloween to Guy Fawkes Night period (October 31st-5th of November), there were 990 injuries (Note: To keep a sense of balance, this was a decrease on previous years. 2003 had 1136 and 2004 had 1160). However, it's still a hell of a lot of injured people. Most injuries are caused at family back garden displays and half of those happen to children under the age of 16. More than 60 under-fives went to hospital in 1997 and the Fire Service reports that over the past five years, over 350 pre-school children, some only a year old, were treated in hospital for fireworks injuries. I should add that the majority of child injuries come from hand-held sparklers rather than actual fireworks but they are classified the same as they are, essentially, gunpowder on a stick. And we let young children hold them; the same young children we discourage from approaching fires, kettles and ovens. It's almost as if commonsense flies out of the window when gunpowder is involved.

Now, I'm not going to suggest that we ban fireworks. Lawks no. Handled safely by responsible people they should be no more dangerous than a chicken (there are similar numbers of chicken-related injuries every year ). 990 injuries should not result in a ban; if we worked to those odds then all cars would be banned immediately as they account for thousands of injuries per year. But what I do say is ... why take an unnecessary risk for something so rubbish? Over 130 million fireworks were sold in Britain in 1995 for home use and I think I can say, with all honesty, that they were all a bit pants. You see, you need a licence to handle explosives over a certain weight and power so all of our home fireworks are, by law, small and pathetic with wimpish whistles, foppish fizzles and wet whooshes. And they cost a small fortune. What I suggest is that you forego the pleasure of setting light to a crappy rocket in a milk bottle and spend your money going to an organised event. The fireworks will be bigger, louder, more colourful and more spectacular and the display will last a lot longer than the box of squibs you would have paid the same money for. You can make it a family event or go with your friends.

It's also interesting to note that when you look at the breakdown of statistics for adult fireworks-related injuries, it's almost 100% blokes. Desmond Morris and other academics love to talk about the fact that society has overtaken evolution and that we are 'cavemen living in cities'. They point to Man's (well, men's) strange fascination with fire; it's why they tend to dominate camping and cooking events or barbecues. It's also possibly why most arsonists are male. So it won't be easy weaning the average bloke off fireworks at home and onto the vicarious thrills of the organised display. But it is worth it.

If it's a bang you're after, surely the bigger the better?


Brit' Gal Sarah said...

Oh thank you for the piccies, I missed not seeing the actual display. I agree fireworks are best left to the experts, but I do love them.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Sarah - the whole thing is up on YouTube now. Click here