Fireworks set young minds alight

5th November 2010 at 00:00

Bonfire Night again. How quickly it comes around. I was a firework fan from an early age, after attending a firework party in Neville's garden, three houses along from ours. From that year on, November 5 became an important event in my calendar, and my primary school friends and I spent a lot of time preparing for it.

Building a guy was always the first step. Times were hard and finding enough old clothing to dress a guy was quite a task. Parents and relatives had to be persuaded to part with that battered old hat, or the pullover with the holes that had been repaired repeatedly, or an older brother's pair of trousers which didn't really fit any more and had a seat so shiny you could almost see your face in it.

One year was particularly lean, and our guy sported Auntie Emmie's bonnet and some broken high-heeled shoes that Neville's sister was throwing out. Though we always managed to construct a guy, my mother wouldn't let me on to the streets with it. She didn't approve of begging, which was a shame because there was nothing better to swell the firework fund than coins from generous passers-by, but she made up for it by spending a Sunday afternoon with me, gathering firewood for the bonfire from the local common.

Instead, I had to rely on donations from my parents and obliging aunts and uncles. When I had accumulated enough my father would take me to the local shop, where I pored over gunpowdery delights for ages, agonising over whether to spend my money on a couple of "big uns" or a multitude of smaller, but far less spectacular fireworks. These would then be taken home, to be stored carefully in an old biscuit tin.

When visitors came to our house, I would proudly get the tin out and line up my growing collection. Unfortunately, fireworks in those days were comparatively delicate, and gunpowder was quick to seep out of them. After I had shown my collection half a dozen times, the table and the bottom of the tin were covered in black powder.

At secondary school, I developed a love of chemistry and making my own fireworks became a highly dangerous November hobby, especially as the chemicals for mixing gunpowder could easily be obtained for a few pence from the local chemist. My bedroom was tucked away in the attic of our house, and one night I was using a pestle and mortar to grind up my latest purchases when the whole lot sparked and caught fire. My spectacles lenses were gritted from the flash and my hand was burned. My parents would have been furious at my activities, so I spent the night with my hand immersed in a bowl of cold water by the bed and then I bandaged it the next day. I told my mother I had scraped my arm on the wall at school.

Nevertheless, I became quite skilful at making fireworks, and they were in great demand from my mates as I could create explosive packages that easily outclassed the penny bangers from the shop. I knew why rockets flew upwards, how Roman candles worked, why sparklers sparkled and how touch paper was made.

Even now I always do a firework assembly. I show the children fire-tracing with potassium nitrate; I burn chemicals which glow in bright colours; and I demonstrate the brilliant ball of light that a strip of magnesium ribbon makes.

Just don't tell the health and safety people. Or we would all have to wear hard hats and concrete overcoats.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email:

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