Sunday, November 13, 2005

Bonfire night

When you move to another country, you discover all the truisms and beliefs instilled in you by your own country. Take for example my recent visit for a health check by a nurse at the local surgery (clinic; I'll blog about the National Health Service later). I asked about mammograms, as in the US it is recommended that I get one annually. The nurse said that in the UK, an annual mammogram isn't recommended until the age of 50 (which I am not). My initial reaction is a sort of panic - what will happen if I don't get an annual mammogram? How can I be protected against an advancing breast cancer? But then, reason takes over and I think, well, hundreds of thousands of women in the UK have this same level of care. Of course, then I think, funny how amongst the people we know or have known in England, there are 6 in the UK who have had it. Versus in the US, where I only know one person (a relative) who has had it. Coincidence?

In any case, the English way of doing things is naturally different, and it challenges my idea of what the right thing to do is. One of the English holidays is Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, which celebrates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. People used to have great big bonfires, but those are now understandably banned. In their place are fireworks. And I mean anyone over 16 can go to any corner store and buy enough firepower to blow off a finger or two. Yes, any drunken yobbo can set off a firework and have it shooting into a neighbor's window. You can have magnificent fireworks displays in the "privacy" of your own backyard. And you can pay to see a fireworks display at a local school, where the firecrackers are so close the booms actually hurt your ears.

The firecrackers started going off in September. I'd hear a boom here and there, which sometimes sounded like a gunshot (a sound I'm sure most people in the UK aren't familiar with except on the TV). My husband assured me each time that it was a firework. As Bonfire Night approached, the noises became more frequent. By the time the weekend of Bonfire Night arrived, they were coming thick and fast. On Friday, the 4th, we went to a local high school, and paid dearly to get in (14 pounds for 2 adults and 2 children). Unbeknownst to us there was a little carnival set up on the school grounds, with arcades and rides and food vendors. It wasn't too cold, but as we were waiting for the fireworks to start, it began to rain. What made it worse is that they delayed the start to get people to spend more money. The fireworks show was not as grand as the municipal fireworks you get in the States, but it was a heckuvalot closer, and therefore much louder. What's more, we didn't have to get there early, find a spot, try and entertain ourselves in the dark until the distant show started, and then spend an hour trying to get through the traffic to go home. We just stood in the field and watched, then went home. We ran into some friends (and face it, we don't even know that many people yet), so it seemed more intimate and community spirited.

I can't remember which night, but one of the weekend nights (or maybe a couple of them), we stood in the attic with our heads poking out of the attic window. The attic window affords a great view, as it is essentially the 3rd floor (2nd floor in English terms) of a house on one of the higher spots in the Bristol area. From our vantage point, we could see fireworks going off all over the city, from just over the row of houses across the street, to way off in the distance near the Severn Bridge (quite a ways away). It was the most amazing thing to see. Then on Bonfire Night, we got together with our neighbors and lit a bunch of cheap fireworks in their backyard (back garden). Our 3-year-old held some sparklers. Even I lit one of the firecrackers. Sparks showered all over our neighbor's wooden fence and deck (it was drizzling rain at the time, too). These were not the bottle rockets of my youth, oh no. There were exploding flowers, Catherine wheels, green dragons, screamers, boomers, I don't even know what they're all called. The air was thick with smoke - all over the city, you could see the smoke, and smell it too.

All this is quite overwhelming for someone who grew up in the US and saw firecrackers restricted, then further restricted, until finally the average person just couldn't get a hold of any. I remember driving out to the rural areas in Texas, where there'd be a wooden shack by the side of the road with FIREWORKS in big bold letters. Eventually it was illegal to set them off anywhere where someone else might see them, basically, unless you had some special license. And when we could buy them, they were much simpler, not the sophisticated colorful displays you can buy in the local newsagents (sort of like a 7-11, only with a larger selection of newspapers and magazines) here. I was appalled, worrying about the fire risk and wondering if all the hospitals gear up for injuries on the nights surrounding Bonfire Night. There is still the occasional boom in the distance (or not so distance) even now. I was in a store the other day which advertised fireworks "for New Year". Isn't it a problem? Aren't there fires? Don't drunken idiots set them off in each others' faces? Apparently not enough to worry the government. My mum-in-law did complain about the noise, saying it should be restricted to one night only. One of our English friends said that in France, there's not even an age restriction for buying fireworks. Mind boggling.

But thinking through it logically, houses here are generally not made of wood. Shingles are tile or slate. The ground is typically very wet this time of year, and as I mentioned, it was raining during the weekend. Richard said the only time you ever heard of a fire was when a rocket shot into someone's window. As for the injuries, I haven't done much research on that. I suppose they happen, but I didn't see anything in the news.

And so, I guess fireworks aren't all bad and damaging. It depends on where you are, the quality of the fireworks, the common sense of the person setting them off. It was pointed out that for all the restricting of fireworks in the US, you can still buy a firearm. So I guess it's all relative.


At 1:51 PM, Anonymous Dylan said...

First I get Dexter explained by you, now The Simpsons.

I never understood the fuss about 'illegal fireworks' (see
I had just assumed that 'fireworks' meant explosives like bombs and dynamite in USA. I did not realise fireworks are restricted in USA!


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