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Up In Smoke?

Last night was bonfire night. Fires and fireworks in remembrance of Guy Fawkes and the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. It doesn’t grab my attention anymore, though it’s impossible to ignore entirely with bangs, whizzes and crackles going off throughout the night.

Today during my morning jog I discovered the object in my photo on the path: a spent rocket-onna-stick. Just a piece of rubbish now, but sixty-odd years ago a treasured find. It triggered memories.

Unlike my current grumpy-old-man seventy-five-year-old indifference, bonfire night was an exciting time as a young lad. Even the cheap box sets (all my dad could afford) were full of promise and magic. There was always a Roman Candle, a Catherine Wheel, a Volcano, a Golden Chrysanthemum, coloured Fountains and, of course a variety of bangers. As I type the names, I can see the colours, hear the fizzing and smell the smells in in our small back garden as dad set them off. If we were really lucky, there might be one with a small wooden handle that could be waved about as it frothed its flames in the dark night — what a thrill! The rockets, I seem to remember, were more expensive and except for tiny 5 second types were bought separately, so we didn’t have many or even any. We young boys considered sparklers to be rather tame and girly though in fact they were better value, lasted longer and were good fun (a conclusion I arrived at much later as a parent).

In the days leading up to The Night, we could spend pocket money on coloured matches — like ordinary matches but longer, with an enlarged head that burned with a bright green or ruby red flame. This was literally burning money though and I only indulged once or twice, then one year the spoil-sport government banned their sale to under-18s. When I grew older me and my mates would take bangers down to the beck at the bottom of our road, light the banger until it started fizzing, then launch it. They made good miniature torpedos, spurting across the stream then exploding with a satisfying splash of water.

The morning after bonfire night displayed the debris of the celebration. Unless high winds had blown it away, there was always a smell of smoke hanging in the air and we boys would keep an eye open for souvenirs. Spent rockets were the most sought after, and a find like mine this morning would become a precious object for a few hours. Of course, a burnt-out cardboard tube and a two foot strip of wood has no intrinsic value, but the thrill of finding a foreign object, fallen out of the the sky gave it a special quality in my young imagination. My family couldn’t afford spectacular rockets and a large empty shell and stick was to touch second-hand the remnants of riches.

As you can see, the name of the item I found this morning is “Star Gazer”. A good name for ten year-old me: my imagination was filled with future wonders.

I wonder if age has blunted my star gazing a bit? I no longer enjoy the thrill of finding old fireworks, but perhaps the naïve innocence in simple pleasures is a quality worth retaining. I wonder if kids still enjoy foraging for spent fireworks or whether digital devices and CGI experience have replaced it. Well, that’s another topic for another day but for me: am I still a star gazer? Do I still look to the future with optimism? Is the sky still open for gazing?

Jesus spoke of faith, hope and charity. We talk a lot about faith and charity, yet hope is crucial too. We live in an age when existential despair seems to turn heads from the stars to the ground. An occasional disappointment in those far-off family firework displays was lighting the blue touch paper, then . . . nothing, it was a dud. For some, it’s happened so often that life itself seems a dud. It’ll never be any better, aspirations always come to nothing. Nonsense! Hope says something else. No matter how many duds surround us, it won’t be forever. Nor do we need to stay disappointed for long. A star gazer always has more fireworks in the box, for this life and the next. Hope and optimism are there for anyone who wants them. They are spiritual gifts from our Saviour and all we have to do is ask. If we really want it enough, we can all light the blue touch paper and take off.


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