Out with a bang
I loved November when I was a child because it was the month with two great events. One lit up the day and the other lit up the night. One’s still going and the other’s history. The Christmas pageant began in November 1933, and it drew a crowd of 200,000. Today more than 400,000 people line the streets of Adelaide and it’s the biggest event of its kind in the world.
But Guy Fawkes night, or cracker night, which was even bigger in its own way, is just a memory. It has its origins in November 1605 when Guy Fawkes almost blew up the British House of Lords. And it was celebrated here until I was a teenager. I can’t remember exactly the day the gunpowder died but every November I can still smell it and see it in my mind’s eye.
Cracker night was wonderfully crazy and chaotic. Every street and backyard had its own pyrotechnic display. It was sexist too. The boys never wanted anything that didn’t go bang or rocket off into the night. The pretty fireworks were for girls: things like the Roman candles you placed on the ground and watched, or the Catherine wheel that was nailed to the fence and twirled around like a supercharged sparkler. Occasionally one would fly off and roar along doing cartwheels of fire across the back yard. If it was a dry November you had to have the hose handy. The jumping jacks started many a backyard blaze.
The squibs were good for scaring grandparents and toddlers. Then there was the standard cracker, the penny bunger and the thru’penny bunger. This was big enough to almost bust an eardrum. But big was never big enough. We soon learnt you could tape bungers together, twirl the wicks into one and get even more bang for your buck.
Every year was a mini arms race as we tried to outdo each other. We developed pipe bombs. Shove a cracker into a piece of pipe with a drill hole in it for the wick, block off one end, drop a marble in the other end, aim it and fire it at the laundry and see if it would go through the iron. If it didn’t, try a ball bearing. If you thought that photo of David Hicks was scary, just picture hundreds of kids all over town with home-made bazookas on their shoulders.
Then we discovered how to make gunpowder. It was just sulphur, saltpetre and charcoal. So we made biscuit barrels of the stuff and we laid it around the backyard leading up to a major weapons pile. We lit the cartoon-like lines of gunpowder and watched all hell break loose. I once made a Milo tin almost go into orbit. I can now see why we banned cracker night.
Anyway, if you want to get some idea of the madness of yesteryear be in the Northern Territory on the night of July 1 for the Territory Day celebrations. The place that brought you the no-speed limit roads and the Darwin stubby is the last bastion of letting off steam and to hell with the consequences.
In recent years there have been more than 100 grassfires in the Top End on the big night. There are always a few bad injuries requiring hospital treatment and the RSPCA says about a dozen dogs go missing.
So go quickly because the calls to ban it are getting stronger. And wear some safety goggles because you know when you are being that silly someone’s bound to lose an eye.