In an unusual turn of affairs, I have been invited to Bonfire Night in the outer suburbs. Not an organised display, oh no, but a proper back garden affair with sausages and bangers. This is how outer London rocks, and it's easy to forget sometimes. When I arrive the house is already full of nephews, home from school and awaiting the evening's entertainment. The kitchen is hectic with activity, as the trolleyful purchased earlier at Asda is transformed into a minor feast. And the garden is very wet, because that's November for you, so we'll eat first if that's OK and hope the cloudburst clears up soon.
There are burgers, because there have to be burgers, topped off by freshly fried onions and slices of cheese, plus self-served squirts of ketchup. There are jacket potatoes, does anybody want a jacket potato, to be filled by grated cheese and a dollop of bubbling baked beans. There's tea and beer, hell why not both, and cans of something sugarier for the youngsters. And there's a whole pile of hot dogs fresh from the grill, surely somebody would like a hotdog, you must have room, here I'll put one on your plate for you. This is how it's meant to be.
It seems the rain has cleared, so the action crosses from inside to out, so put your shoes back on. Granddad's set up a bucket packed with sand at what's technically the far end of the lawn, although is in fact still suspiciously close to the house. A pail of water awaits the remains of the sparklers, and a bag full of pyrotechnics sits just inside on the kitchen table. The neighbours have come round to boost the audience, that's Mum and Dad and young daughter, and have kindly brought their own bag of fireworks too. Something high and sparkly explodes in the sky several back gardens down. And would anyone else like another hotdog while we're waiting?
The first rocket is manhandled into position, and Nephews' Dad attempts to set it alight. This proves problematic, in part because it's a bit windy out, but mostly because the ignition mechanism of choice is a cheap cigarette lighter. Several clicks later nothing has happened, or has it, it's hard to be sure, and guessing wrongly could prove highly regrettable. But look Dad, I think that's lit, something appears to be glowing, stand back! A series of bangs and flashes ensues, at first close to the ground then shooting up into the air, as the spectators cower by the patio doors in case somebody's misjudged. Nope, all's fine, blimey that was rather good.
Firework two is a little less impressive, but still eruptively glittery, then fireworks three and four rather more of a letdown. It appears we may have accidentally set off the best firework first, and the rest of the display might be an anticlimax. But firework five ups the ante again, rising higher into the sky that any competitor in any surrounding garden, then exploding in a fireburst that fills the sky. We agree it looked suspiciously like a professional grade rocket, of the type that you'd see at a paid-for display, only from considerably further back. And we appear to have half a dozen of these, of somewhat questionable provenance, so bring it on.
It takes a while to fully trust the situation, to believe that no potential pyrotechnic is going to career off its trajectory on a collision course and leave you with third degree burns for life. But with each successive ignition we become more blasé, letting our guard down and edging a little closer, that is until one of the lit fireworks topples before firing. It shoots off just above ground level, thankfully not in our general direction, but towards and then just over the fence. Had there been anybody on the pavement on the other side they'd have been both startled and sprinkled with pink cinders, but no yelping or cursing ensues, so we assume all was clear.
The entertainment value of each firework bears little correlation to its size. A big lumpy block the size of a car battery splutters briefly and then fades away, while a small conical canister manages to dispense glowing balls of coloured fire for longer than seems physically possible. This one's maybe ten years old, says Mr Neighbour, so it's no surprise when it fails to do much. But his next offering has one hundred sections, he announces proudly, and that's amazing, firing out fizzing flashes like some kind of demonic attack. In the game of neighbourhood firework oneupmanship, a much coveted local title, this back garden display appears to be winning.
Lighting each fuse continues to be somewhat problematic, and on more than one occasion Granddad has to be urged to withdraw in case his jabbing has indeed caused the wick to glow. A little careful editing, and a less positive conclusion, and next year's Bonfire Night public information film could be playing out before us. As if to tempt fate further Mr Neighbour tires of using a weedy cigarette lighter and pops home to fetch his blowtorch. This is considerably more effective, and results in a speeding up of proceedings, including the occasional double firing because we can. But holding a fiery blowtorch and rushing away from a lit firework across wet leaf-covered grass in a garden full of children is surely pushing our luck to the limit. Our luck holds.
Eventually the sparklers come out of the box, and it becomes clear that most of those present below the age of 12 have never held one before. You only ever hold this end, the adults chorus, and don't wave it near anyone else, and oh can I have one too? After the sparklers half the audience drifts away, either to the kitchen or the room beyond the patio doors, because when you've seen twenty-something fireworks you feel you've seen them all. Grandma's already tidying away the uneaten food and cleaning down her surfaces, because priorities. Middle nephew's going nowhere, however, and continues to record each individual firework on his iPad for future media consumption.
The catherine wheels present a new problem, namely where to nail them in, so Mr Neighbour pops home to collect a long block of wood which Nephews' Dad then mallets into the upper lawn. This practical solution works well for the first couple of seconds before the wheel's momentum causes it to slip loose and fall into a flowerbed, where it gushes smoke in vain. Lesson learned, a second larger wheel is bashed into the post for some considerable time to ensure it can't fly off. It is therefore perhaps no surprise when, once lit, it completely fails to spin. Provoked by this depressing waste, Nephew's Dad pokes the wheel repeatedly with the end of a broom until it eventually starts to turn... and then flings off at speed, the closest shave of the entire night.
By now at least an hour has passed, this backyard show having lasted longer than any public display tonight or over the weekend. The willingness of suburban males to purchase explosive powder in small tubes at this time of year is a phenomenon, especially given how swiftly that hard earned cash turns to ash. Eventually the stockpile is diminished to just two, a decorated brick that dazzles the garden in repeated sequence, and a final industrial-strength rocket. And as its fiery petals dissipate in the sky, that's the lot, and a minor round of applause ensues. Because there's nothing quite so Firework Night as an amateur homegrown display, with all the up-close risk that this entails. And would anybody like a cold hot dog - there appear to be rather a lot left?