Fires Were Started (Or Not) : A Display Of Fireworks

A little ahead of time, or a little behind it, given that most fireworks displays will have taken place over the weekend – I went to one at our local Rugby Club on Friday evening.  The major change here from previous years was that there was no bonfire – presumably because the club is a hundred yards or so from a main road and I can see that having thick clouds of smoke suddenly blinding motorists could cause problems.

There is a long and fascinating history of November 5th celebrations on Wikipedia, from which I learned that health and safety concerns are nothing new.  Fireworks were first banned on those grounds in the 1680s, ‘much mischief having been done by squibs’.  The custom of children collected Pennies for the Guy has been the subject of controversy since it first arose in the late 18th century (in 1790 the The Times first complained about children ‘begging for money for Guy Faux‘).  In 1802 a ‘set of idle fellows … with some horrid figure dressed up as Guy Faux‘ were convicted of begging and sent to prison as ‘idle and disorderly persons‘.  Nowadays the respectable complaint is that children are too idle to make Guys, or that they are prevented from asking for money by paranoia about their safety.

David Cressy is quoted as saying that, by the 18th Century, Bonfire Night had become ‘a polysemous occasion, meaning all things to all men‘, which sounds about right.  As an example, when I lived in London, I remember a friend (a Swedish Marxist academic and protoblogmartyr) and I taking our children to a display on one of London’s highest points.  He looked around as fires raged all over London and explosions lit up the sky and said “I know why you English enjoy this – it reminds you of the Blitz“.  I could see his point.

I confess to having a childlike fascination with fireworks and could look at them for hours – except that I think most small children are more likely to be frightened by fireworks than fascinated and looking at them for hours is precisely what you cannot do.  I  think – aside  from the elemental quality of the fire – that part of the fascination lies in the purely abstract beauty of the fireworks (Whistler’s pot of paint flung in the face of the public was, of course, a painting of a fireworks display).

Having taken some photographs on Friday, I could now look at them for hours (if I had the time), and can read anything into them I choose to –  a dying star, a palm tree, a coral reef, marigolds, fireflies, a Jackson Pollock, the birth of the Universe – or nothing.


“Excellent Sport Expected” : Looking Forward to 20/20 from 1744

I haven’t managed to catch any of this year’s twenty-twenty matches, though I certainly hope to see at least one.  Two victories already, apparently, (as many as we’ve achieved all year in other forms of cricket) and, of course, the lure of Josh Cobb playing the ukelele.

I don’t want to put ideas into anyone’s heads, but the idea that a game of cricket, however fast and furious,  is not enough, in itself, to attract a crowd is by no means new, as this extract from David Underdown’s Start of Play attests –

“As in limited-overs matches today, additional diversions were sometimes provided for those who craved a little more spice than they expected to find at the cricket … in 1744, the organizers of a match on Walworth Common between a Southwark XI and another from the Kent Road advertised a smock race to bring in the crowds.  Two “jolly wenches” (one a “handsome broom girl” known as “the Little Bit of Blue”, and the other “Black Bess of the Mint”) were to race for a Holland smock worth a guinea.  “They are to run in drawers only”, the promoters announced, “and there is excellent sport expected”.  Not surprisingly, they expected an unusually raucous crowd and promised to employ their own security forces: “Captain Vinegar, with a great many of his bruisers and bulldogs” would control the ring, “that no civil spectators may be incommoded by the rabble”.”

There is something quite contemporary- or, perhaps, eternal in the English character –  about this combination of prurience and concern for propriety.  One thinks, topically, of certain newspapers thundering against Rihanna prancing about in her drawers while commemorating the event in a five page supplement. I don’t know whether Captain Vinegar* and his Bruisers and Bulldogs are likely to be available for this year’s one-dayer at Headingley.  If so, I suggest the ECB sign them up at once. 

*A pseudonym used by the novelist Henry Fielding, incidentally, though I doubt if this was him.

A Smock Race by Thomas Rowlandson

The Many Faces of Kettering : Northampton House and Station Road in Transition


 The longer this blog goes on, the more chances it offers to revisit the recent past and observe the processes of change (and sometimes decay).  It was about a year ago that I began taking photographs, and I see that one of the first things I snapped were a pair of buildings at the end of Station Road, Kettering.  I must have passed these innumerable times now in the course of the last fifty years. 

One of these used to be the Kettering Centre for the Unemployed, and the other was most recently used by the body that conducts driving tests.  In 2006 it was announced that the buildings were to be redeveloped, and a “competition” was launched to find the best design (the brief is here – \”Design brief\”).

The winning design involved demolishing the existing buildings and erecting a grandiose-looking set of offices.  Amongst others, the Victorian Society objected to this proposal (Don\’t demolish Kettering\’s Edwardian heritage say Victorian Society) (oddly, the Society think the buildings were built in 1910, whereas the Council  think they are ca. 1873).

For a while there was a sort of artist’s impression of the new development at the end of the street – with much use of the word “Gateway” (and quite possibly Beacons and Flagships too – there was a lot of that around in those days).

By the time I photographed it first (I think it was April last year) that hoarding had come down and it looked like this –

and the entrance like this (the remains of the winning design hoarding are visible – note the word Gateway) –

 I think if I were directing a film in years to come and trying to establish that it was set somewhere in the second half of the first decade of this century I’d go for something like this – a facade of happy smiling multicultural children’s artwork (the Many Faces of Kettering)  obscuring the debris of a stalled regeneration project.  

And if I were trying to establish that we had moved into a new decade?  Well, again, I think this is perfect.

Steel shutters and the kind of political graffiti that I haven’t seen in many a long year – “People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people” (good to see the comma in there, incidentally – obviously written by a student).

And here are some other views : 6, Station Road from the side (I’ve a suspicion that cloud that Tigger has his nose stuck in is an addition by a later artist) –

from the rear of Northampton House (that Social Security sign really must be ancient) –

an interior view of 6, Station Road-

and the interior of the entrance to Northampton House (curiously, as you can just about make out, they seem to have left behind a couple of rather attractive high-backed wooden chairs and a bookcase – possibly original Edwardian (or Victorian) features) –

(If you enjoyed looking at these photographs, incidentally, you might also enjoy Marchand and Meffre’s pictures of the Ruins of Detroit – something similar, but on a sublime scale …)

The enormous condescension of posterity (2): historians and poets

An odd discussion this week on Channel 4 News between Gordon Corrigan and Christina Patterson, formerly of the Poetry Society, about the significance of the death of Harry Patch.

Corrigan is a retired major in the Gurkhas turned military historian, the author of Blood, mud and poppycock: this is just one of the many millions of books I’ve yet to read,  so I’ll refrain from comment on it – the central thrust, however seems to be a defence of the British generals in Word War 1, and a general debunking of what he sees as the mythology surrounding that war.  I seem to remember, when I was studing A Level history over twenty years ago, writing interminable essays aruing that the cause of WW1 was German paranoia and aggression, and that, if the War was to be won, there was little alternative to Haig’s policy of attrition – so that part (if that’s what he’s saying)doesn’t seem particularly controversial. 

No doubt he has valid points to make, but his performance on the TV (and it was hard not to reminded of the Major in Fawlty Towers) managed to convey the impression that fighting on the Western Front had actually been rather fun.  He produced various statistics about the amount of time that men spent on the front line as opposed to behind the lines: apparently they spent more time playing football than actually fighting.  This does suggest an appalling failure of the imagination.

He also said something to the effect (I wasn’t making notes and can’t find a transcript) that he hoped the war would soon cease to be a national scar and become a part of history.  I think what he means by this is that it ceases to be something in which we participate imaginatively and becomes a set of facts and figures which historians can rearrange and interpret in new and surprising ways,  for political or careerist reasons,  or simply for the fun of it.

I’m reminded of Geoffrey Hill’s essay on his own sequence of poems Funeral Music –

“Without attempting factual detail, I had in mind the Battle of Towton, fought on Palm Sunday, 1461.  It is now customary to play down the violence of the Wars of the Roses and to present them as dynastic skirmishes fatal, perhaps, to the old aristocracy but generally of small concern to the common people and without much effect on the economic routines of the kingdom.  Statistically, this may be arguable; imaginatively, the Battle of Towton itself commands one’s belated witness.  In the accounts of the contemporary chroniclers it was a holocaust.  Some scholars have suggested that the claims were exaggerated, although the military historian, Colonel A.H. Burne … reckons that over twenty-six thousand men died at Towton and remarks that ‘the scene must have beggared description and its very horror probably deterred the survivors from passing on stories of the fight’.  Even so, one finds the chronicler of Croyland Abbey writing that the blood of the slain lay caked with the snow which covered the ground and that, when the snow melted, the blood flowed along the furrows and ditches for a distance of two or three miles.”