Dom Joly: Flash, bang, wallop... that's it for another year

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The Independent Online

Thank God bonfire night is over for another year. I know I sound like a bit of a party pooper, but I really do feel that, as a rule, once you've seen one fireworks display you've seen them all.

There just doesn't seem to have been much progress in the world of the firework. In other areas of life things seem to take huge leaps forward. But, since I was a kid, I can't remember being blown away by any new, exciting firework. Occasionally you get a particularly big one that makes an almighty noise, but essentially it still just blows up and lets off a coloured circle of sparks. Big deal.

It's possible I've been a little spoilt. As a kid growing up in Lebanon I witnessed a completely different type of celebratory ceremony. Beirut in the early 1970s was like a heavily primed powder keg just waiting to explode. Every religious faction was armed to the teeth and longing for an excuse to pull the trigger. Until the actual civil war kicked off in 1975, they had to make do with religious holidays.

Whenever there was any excuse for festivities, whereas anywhere else in the world would use fireworks, the Lebanese would use live ammunition. Particular favourites were tracer bullets. These had little red lights in the back of them so that fighters could see where their rounds were going in the dark. Militias down in Beirut would let off huge streams of tracer fire into the night air. These would form snake-like lines of little red dots cutting through the air. As a boy I would stand on the balcony of our house in the hills high above Beirut watching all this in fascination.

Even at this young age, however, I was aware of the basic laws of physics. What goes up, must come down. Every celebration night would bring countless victims from the rounds falling back to the ground.

Quite apart from being traumatised by flashbacks whenever I subsequently attended fireworks displays in the UK, it was possibly this personal history that always made me find the displays a little dull in comparison to those crazy Beirut nights.

There was one exception – last summer in Beijing when I was at the Olympics. I'd decided to miss the closing ceremony and get a cab downtown to go to the handing-over party at the UK Pavilion. We were expecting the Prime Minister, David Beckham and Jimmy Page. It was going to be good and I didn't want to get stuck in the post-ceremony traffic. Halfway to my destination, the end-of-play fireworks started. It was the sheer mass and volume of stuff hurled into the air at the same time that was so staggering. It was like those images of Baghdad being pummelled by American missiles, except in glorious technicolour.

The traffic simply stopped dead and everybody got out of their cars and stared skywards as the city was bathed in strobing pinks and greens. It was insanely beautiful and powerful, and very fitting since I was in the very place where gunpowder was invented. The display seemed to go on and on. Ten, 15 minutes passed with the whole of Beijing frozen to the spot. To my right, a group of about 15 little boys clad only in scruffy shorts and flip-flops gazed in complete awe at the sky. I presumed that somebody had explained to them what was going on? They seemed half-fearful of this celestial explosion. Curiously, unlike my lily-livered hounds back home, Beijing street dogs seemed completely unfazed by the display. Maybe they are made of sterner stuff than my cosseted sofa pooches?

After what seemed an age, the display ended and the traffic slowly resumed its ritual madness. I can still smell the cordite three months on.