Paul Vallely: I used to enjoy fireworks. Now I want them banned

This is not just health and safety wimpdom. It's the attitude that fireworks betray which really irritates

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Moments of epiphany come in all guises. It was a hefty stick of solid pine – some five foot long and almost half an inch in diameter – that transformed me from a libertarian into an authoritarian just this time last year. The object in question came crashing out of a soot-black sky and thudded rudely into my left shoulder. A few inches to the right, dear reader, and I might not have been here to give you the benefit of my ruminations today.

Moments of epiphany come in all guises. It was a hefty stick of solid pine – some five foot long and almost half an inch in diameter – that transformed me from a libertarian into an authoritarian just this time last year. The object in question came crashing out of a soot-black sky and thudded rudely into my left shoulder. A few inches to the right, dear reader, and I might not have been here to give you the benefit of my ruminations today.

The sharp-edged lump of wood was the stick from a rocket. It was not Guy Fawkes Night but one of the evenings in the firework season which seems to get longer with every year that passes. Once, I admit, I enjoyed it. Yet through all my years of indulgence in those chill foggy evenings enlivened by the flicker of bonfire flames and the uncertain fizz and crackle of squibs that were often all too literally damp, one simple truth had never occurred to me. As I lit the blue touchpaper of hundreds of rockets on over the decades the thought had never crossed my mind about where what went up might come down. Last year I found out.

The news that the Government is to ban two of the most popular types of firework from next year – those extraordinarily ear-shattering Roman Candles called "air bombs" and the devices which the pyrotechnic industry has poetically dubbed "screaming rockets" - provoked a new response in me. Where once I would have moaned about nanny-state spoilsports I yesterday found myself proclaiming that a ban on just two of these ghastly explosives was nowhere near enough.

This is not just health-and-safety wimpdom. True, the number of injuries rose by a massive 40 per cent last year with hundreds of serious burns being put down to air bombs and screamers. It's the social attitudes which fireworks betray that are really irritating.

By that, I'm not merely complaining about the warped sense of humour of the banger-throwing hooligans who tossed an air-bomb at a man working in his garden just down the road from me a couple of weeks ago and blew his finger off. How they chortled as they scooted off, onlookers reported.

Nor is it the cruelty of a gang of youths elsewhere in Greater Manchester who threw a firework at a dog – which the hapless creature picked up, as if it were a stick, only to have the device explode in its mouth. The dog died.

No, it's more the self-absorption that is revealed by the individuals who stage huge firework fests to mark some private point of celebration at midnight in residential areas without giving a thought to the ill, elderly, early-rising shiftworkers and parents who have just finally got their recalcitrant babies to sleep. Fireworks have become another symbol of the solipsism of our age.

An art form – for at its best that is what a great firework display can be – which was designed to celebrate a shared experience for an entire community has been reduced to a sad self-indulgence, that is simultaneously sequestered in a private space and yet imposes itself with singular violence on those around, whether they are willing or not.

From next year, ministers intend to impose £40 on-the-spot fines on yobs who throw fireworks in the street, at least on those who turn out to be over the age of 18. Doubtless, the plan will be as doomed as all New Labour's other on-the-spot initiatives but it also misses the point entirely. What is needed is the banning of the private sale of fireworks all together. That, and greater efforts to solve the problems that have now cropped up with the communal displays which were, until recently, becoming more common.

If ever there was an occasion when the communitarian impulse ought to triumph over the individualistic, one would have thought that the detonation of explosive devices in public places ought self-evidently to be it. And yet the organisers of hundreds of Bonfire Night displays are facing the prospect of having to cancel this year having hit a new problem – that public liability insurance cover is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.

One broker who organised insurance for 5,000 public firework displays last year has just announced that it has been unable to organise any cover this year because of the number of spectators who last year sued under new "no win, no fee" litigation rules. And those events that have managed to secure cover have done so with increases of premiums – despite excellent safety records – of as much as 2,000 per cent. Intervention by government ministers on that would be very welcome but, of course, finding a solution to such difficulties might prove a good deal more tricky than once more waving the discredited notion of cash-dispenser justice.

It may be, of course, that I am just being Meldrewish about all this. (But just think what passion might have been stirred if the stick had actually landed on my head.) Even so, I might be prepared to compromise if the firework season – which once was confined to 5 November but now continues to be stretched to the point where soon it will start at the end of the school summer holidays and carry on until Christmas – were to be re-restricted to a single night once again. Then, at least, I could hide from the whole awful business by staying in.

p.vallely@independent.co.uk

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