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The Flat Cap on ... Fireworks

Earlier today The Flat Cap was approached by two ill dressed youths who asked if he had a penny for the guy. When The Flat Cap politely pointed out to the two teenagers that they actually didn’t have a guy the young men became rather argumentative and said that they were still making it. They also remarked that 50p or a pound would be a more realistic contribution (to the cost of making the non-existent guy). Concerned that things might become a little unpleasant The Flat Cap took refuge inside his local newsagents until they were moved on by one of those community police officers. Whilst inside the shop he noticed a large glass display of fireworks and this got him thinking a bit more about the whole Bonfire Night and fireworks thing.

When The Flat Cap was a lad a penny for the guy was a good natured way of begging; so long as you actually had a guy. Invariably these figures were created by stuffing newspapers or rags inside your Dad’s old clothes. You would then wheel the finished product from door to door in an old pram, or proudly pose with it on busy street corners in the hope that people doing their shopping, or men coming out of the pub, would part with some of their loose change. Nowadays however the practice has largely died out. Domestic Bonfire Night celebrations, complete with a large fire and a guy, have instead been replaced with organised displays and charity shops and car boot sales have sprung up as the final resting place for your father’s old clothes.

Fireworks actually pre-date November 5th by hundreds of years and were invented by the Chinese, who still manufacture the majority of them. The UK fireworks industry has in contrast literally all but fizzled out due to tighter legislation and the cheaper cost of labour in the Far East. The Flat Cap can’t decide if cheap imports are a good thing, or not. Like everyone else he loves a bargain and yet he worries there mightn’t be enough jobs to go round for future school leavers. He also gets depressed when he watches reality television programmes like Benefits Street and worries that unemployment is probably a lot higher than the government really says it is.

Another thing that depressed him was the price of fireworks. Fortunately The Flat Cap knows Bob who works at the local cricket club and they always have their own firework display. Bob has told The Flat Cap that he can get him in “free”, and to just get him a pint instead. Bob also said that The Flat Cap should get down early because there would likely to be a queue at the bar, and it wouldn’t “look as obvious” if he waved him in when it was quieter.

Organised firework displays usually employ specialist pyrotechnical experts who have studied the art of how to make fireworks look good, and in what order to set them off. In some countries it’s a proper job and Bob says you need GCSEs and training to become really proficient. When pressed further, Bob said pyrotechnicians must get paid at least as much as train drivers because of the unsocial hours - like always working at night and weekends. Also if you end up doing a firework display in the summer months you have to wait for it to go dark. That in turn means a really late night after you have put away all your rocket launchers and cleared up any mess and your fluorescent signs telling people where not to stand. Night shifts in most jobs attract premium rates, although they do play havoc with your home life if you’re not careful. As well as paying people to work shifts health and safety is very important when handling fireworks, as is a good level of accident insurance and an adequate number of fire extinguishers. To prove the point about health and safety it is worth remembering that after a firework display in France to celebrate the marriage of King Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette on 16th May 1770, a stampede occurred, which killed over 800 people.

Bob told The Flat Cap that he had learned lots of interesting facts about pyrotechnics just from chatting to the bloke who let off last year’s fireworks at the cricket club. These included the following:

  • People who make firework shells are required to wear cotton clothing - even cotton underwear - because synthetic clothing can create sparks from static that could detonate fireworks

  • After England’s failed Gunpowder Plot its parliament passed the Observance of the 5th November Act. This made church attendance compulsory on that day, and by the late 17th Century the day had gained a reputation for riotousness, disorder and anti-Catholicism. Binge drinking in town centres is perhaps the nearest modern day equivalent of the first two

  • The hardest colour for fireworks manufacturers to make is blue

  • The word pyrotechnics comes from the Greek words pyro, (fire), and techne, (art)

  • A decent packet of sparklers can cost more than £5

  • It was the invention of fireworks which led to the invention of gunpowder weaponry, rather than the other way around. During medieval warfare in China, they would sometimes tie fireworks to rats, which would then run into enemy territory. Not satisfied with terrifying rodents the Chinese would also strap fireworks to arrows to terrify their enemies. Any nearby birds would become so startled that they would fly into things

  • Walt Disney World buys more fireworks than any other company in the world; hardly a Mickey Mouse company - although technically it is

  • The earliest known fireworks display in England occurred in 1486 for the wedding of Henry VII

  • Henry VII’s son, Henry VIII also set off fireworks to celebrate his marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533 but then he had her beheaded just three years later

  • Norway currently holds the world record for the most individual fireworks let off in a single display - 540,832 in November 2014

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