Fireworks were an annual occasion when I was a child in Harehills, and as I have mentioned before, there was the thrill of going to buy a box of Standard Fireworks and a couple of rockets with my brothers and mother. There was the additional excitement of going with my Grandma in Chapel Allerton to the Post Office and buying another box. There was something special about the smell of the boxes and the mysteriously shaped fireworks inside with exotic names. Spitfires, Roman Candles, Catherine Wheels, Jumping Jacks, Traffic Lights, sparklers, they all conjured up visions of what they would be like. When I was little, fireworks, a small bonfire and parkin, toffee apples, gingerbread and potatoes cooked in the embers of the fire were part of the magic. It is true that the fireworks were short lived and sometimes just failed to light, like a damp squib, but it was still wonderful. Frosty, misty, damp and special were the times standing in the back garden, toasting on the side facing the fire and icy the side that was away. We stood there, my brothers and I, feeling the magic would last forever, until the dying embers of the fire faded away. And it did fade away, and we grew older and not so easily entertained.
The back garden gave way to organised events and the first was held at Ladywood Methodist Church. There was a large lawn in front of the old and beautiful church now, sadly, demolished. It was on the lawn that an enormous bonfire had been built, or so it seemed, compared to our backyard one. A large crowd of church members and locals gathered and the fire was lit with great ceremony, a Guy Fawkes was seated at the apex, with great historical significance. There were stalls selling various goodies and after a while the fireworks started. They were much grander than our own displays and multiple fireworks were set off at the same time, an extravagance we could never have enjoyed at home as they were too expensive to waste. The event was family orientated and I loved it. For some reason, we stopped attending Ladywood, but then we found an even greater display was held at Roundhay Park, near the arena. Now I would still have been only about seven at the time and just started Harehills C.P. School, so it would have been 1960-61. The event wasn’t the major show it later became, but the groundsmen and park keepers had gathered a great pile of fallen timber from around the park and set up the bonfire opposite Hill 60, on the side where you sledged if there was snow. The first time I remember going the crowd was large, but nothing outrageous and the firework display good, but still quite basic. We had parked the car along the Soldiers’ Field and walked over the ridge to stand on the terraces of Hill 60. Nothing was organised and I don’t think anything was on sale. I do remember the fire being enormous and the flames danced reaching high into the sky and casting a warm glow across the large distance of the arena.
We went for a number of years and in time it became more organised and the crowds grew and caravans selling various foods to eat popped up, and the firework displays became much more professional and impressive. It was one of those annual events that punctuated a child’s year, with a smattering of magic, or at least it did for me.
Unfortunately I started to grow up and change and, family events held little interest for me, whereas friends, excitement and girls suddenly did. I have told of attending youth clubs at St Edmunds and Lidgett Park Methodist Churches, and certainly the Methodist Church held an organised bonfire. This was not the same family affair that Ladywood had held as it was mainly youth club members who attended, but there were some families there. Now teenagers believe that they are immortal and taking risks is what they do. The bigger the risk the bigger the kudos, particularly if there is an audience. As a result, fireworks and teenagers are not a good combination. We arrived at the bonfire with pockets bulging with bangers, jumping jacks and matches. The ‘Stand Back and Light Blue Touch Paper’, of old was now totally ignored. The new paradigm was pull out banger, light blue touch paper, hold in hand as sparks flew out of the end and then, at the latest possible moment, hurl the banger towards some unsuspecting victim. We aimed mainly at the feet, and whilst you were in the process, someone else had probably thrown one at you, just to catch you unawares. I am sorry to say, and please do not follow my example, but it was fabulous. There was a real thrill in holding the lit banger as long as possible. Timing was all and experience was everything. How could girls not be impressed with such behaviour? How could the boys not be impressed with the girls who could handle the bangers with equal skill and courage?
The bonfire itself held less attraction and we tended to wander off in a pack to find another fire or gathering where we could liven the evening up. Jumping Jacks were equally exciting and for some reason when they started banging and jumping, they had an uncanny knack of following you around. Another thing to try was emptying out the gunpowder from a number of bangers and then putting a match to the powder. There was a flash and a great cloud of smoke. We called these Genies and I loved the smell. Those who live in Yorkshire will know that the fourth of November is Mischief Night, and all types of tricks were played on unwary households. Dustbin lids were tied to door handles and then there would be a knock on the door and when the occupant opened the door there would be a crash as the metal dustbin lid was pulled off crashing to the ground. Door handles could be spread with grease and occasionally doors would be egged. Unfortunately sometimes these pranks got out of hand.
One of my friends, who will remain nameless, paired up with another boy and launched an attack at the female hall of residence at the Womens’ Hospital behind the Roundhay Schools. They crept onto the grounds armed with plastic drainpipe and assorted rockets. They angled the pipes, wedged on bricks, inserted rockets and launched a missile attack on the building. Goodness only knows what the poor, tired nurses trying to get some sleep thought as they had explosions around their windows as some, at least, of the rockets met their mark. No real damage was done, the building did not set alight and the arrival of the police marked the end of the onslaught. When my friend related this to me and the rest of the class, the next day at school, we were all very impressed and wished we had thought of it.
The aftermath of Bonfire Night was very distressing for some families. I was lucky and escaped any damage, and I didn’t harm anyone else, but a close friend of one of my friends was badly maimed by fireworks catching alight in his pocket. I was told he begged for someone to put the fire out, but unfortunately chemical fires are not easily extinguished. St James’ Hospital at Harehills was always busy, with burns, fingers lost, eyes damaged and even deaths. The pleasure of the many was paid by the suffering of the few. Here in Western Australia fireworks are banned, apart from in organised events. I believe they are still legal in Canberra and the Northern Territory, but for the rest there are massive displays for New Year and in here in Perth, on Australia Day. These cost millions and are impressive, but they certainly lack the excitement and danger of the ones we experienced in Leeds in the 1960s.
Parts 1 to 6 of my audiobook Blaze are available to listen to on the soundcloud player below.