Just like last year, we made our way to Battersea Park earlier tonight. Back then, Ms B’s photo of the pyrotechnics was chosen by BBC News for the top of their national webpage, after they saw it on our Instagram feed.
We had bought early bird tickets for £7 per person (regular price £11, all tickets have to be purchased online in advance) and arrived way before the official kick-off time of 8pm to enjoy some street food from a few of the two dozen large stalls, and to suck in the great atmosphere around the giant bonfire. The fire emanated an enormous amount of heat, warming everyone up despite the fact that a 15m perimeter around it had been cordoned off for safety reasons.
Compared with last year, everything was much more professional, well-organised, bigger, and better. There were a DJ, a host and music, large video screens, and plenty of security staff and wardens. The atmosphere among the more than 50,000 fireworks fanatics was very relaxed and family friendly with no drunken behaviour or aggression, as far as we could tell.
The award-winning pyrotechnicians from Jubilee Fireworks, commissioned by the good councillors of Wandsworth, make the sky burn for more than 20 minutes. Even though it was very exciting, it did feel longer (not shorter) than that, probably simply because in comparison with other fireworks it is indeed rather long.
When I heard that the local council has the second lowest council tax of the country, it got me thinking: is there a connection between council tax and major admission-charging events? So, I did the maths: the total cost of the event tonight is thought to be £225,000 according to various newspaper articles, the ticket sales according to my calculations must be around £500,000, leaving £275,000 for the council, in effect that’s just peanuts, I guess, unless they start lighting up the sky every night. Still: well done!
The history of fireworks goes back to 200 BC, when the Chinese were writing on green bamboo. In order to dry the ink, they put the bamboo sticks over hot coals. Soon they discovered that if left on the coals for too long, then the dry wood would explode with a loud bang, like a firecracker. Nearly a thousand years later our creative cousins from the East also came up with gunpowder, or ‘black powder’ as it was initially called, when they didn’t use it for guns but only for religious and ceremonial purposes. In an ironic twist the alchemists had been looking for an elixir for immortality when they came up with quite the opposite.
While as early as 1050 AD, Arabs were quite enthusiastically using gun powder to perforate good Christians’ backsides, it took until the 12th Century that the innovation had spread to most of Europe. Perhaps the most important invention happened in 1830, when Italians discovered, that the fireworks could be given colours by adding various metallic powders: copper chloride for blue, lithium salts for red, barium chloride for green, calcium for orange, and sodium for yellow. The Sun King, Louis XIV of France, insisted on lavish fireworks for all his parties. King James II of England was so fond of fireworks he created the position of ‘Fire Master of England’ and knighted the good man. His predecessor James I, unsurprisingly, was significantly less fond of explosive powders, as we shall see.
All evening, we felt a good deal of gratitude towards a certain tall, red-haired, moustachioed, Yorkshire ex-soldier and explosives expert, who once had been hired by Robert Catesby, the leader of a motley crew of catholic insurgents, to do his thing. On 5th November 1605 (“remember, remember, the fifth of November”) the group tried to blow up Westminster Palace with the protestant king, James I, inside, in the so-called Gunpowder Plot. When an anonymous letter was found that warned catholic members of parliament to stay away on the day, James I decided to have the parliament’s basement searched. Guy Fawkes got caught and was hanged three months later after enduring horrific torture with such dignity, tenacity, and resilience, that several historical sources confirm reliably that it earned him the king’s respect. Bucket list goals, yay!
Without these exploits there would be no Bonfire Night, no Guy Fawkes Day, V for Vendetta would look a lot less stylish, and the 15-year old geeks of Anonymous would have to stock up on a whole lot of Clearasil, because they would have to show their faces.
We also felt grateful that everything tonight was handled by experts. Apparently so-called sparklers (it’s in the name) reach temperatures of 1,650 degrees Celsius, that’s pretty damn hot. For comparison: aluminium melts at a thousand degrees cooler temperatures, copper and gold still at 600 degrees less, and even iron’s melting point is a lot lower. Don’t want to accidentally pour some of that sauce onto your new pair of trousers, might ruin the fabric.
We heard that the after-party (£20) in Battersea Evolution was fun, too, and lasted well into the small hours, but we left that to the younger folks and headed home, gorging on some more delicious street food on the way.