Thursday, 6 November 2008
The smell of gunpowder
I'd forgotten the date. I didn't stay up late for the U.S. election results but went to sleep with the radio on and accepted a friend's offer to ring me when the outcome was clear. It made for a restless night and tired day. There were tired people everywhere, many exuberant with delight at news of Obama's victory. I was relieved - the thought of President Palin terrified me - but the news was shadowed by memories of 1997, when the election of Tony Blair felt like the lifting of a nightmare.
I stumbled through the day, giving way to clumsy mistakes. I was unsurprised to find that the train home would be half an hour late. All the trains were delayed after a fire alarm at St Pancras. Half an hour didn't seem too bad. It even gave me an opportunity to catch my breath and do some work in the station cafe (the waiting room was full).
I continued to work on the train, then swept everything into my bag as I reached my stop. And as I walked out into the dark drizzle, the smell reached me - gunpowder. "The fifth of November," I recalled, and a rush of thoughts and memories hit me. I couldn't reconcile them.
As an adult, I can't ignore the Guy Fawkes story: torture, fear, violence, orchestrated hatred. The bonfires once recalled that as clearly as any Chamber of Horrors. But it's all mutated into something both cosier and more anarchic: family participation in firework displays and celebrations. Fireworks Day is also bound up with childhood memories: the bonfire in the field, cold, gloved hands clasping the thin wire of sparklers, the small rocket placed carefully in a milk bottle, gasps of delight as the tiny catherine wheel sparks into a multi-coloured blur.
I love firework displays. I love the sudden blazing chrysanthemums that bloom for seconds then fade against a velvet-dark sky. I love the frisson of fear at the scream of swooping rockets - even the range of pops and earth-shaking thuds that recall tales of mud and anguish on the western front. I wanted to go to a firework display or party. But I couldn't. I was going fencing - and I didn't want to leave the cat for long.
Fortunately Joe doesn't seem too worried by fireworks - or not when he's indoors. Sometimes he sits up, alert, in case he's called on the defend the house - and he's not as settled as usual. He didn't like the early lock-in either. But instead of worrying, he curled up in one of his favourite places - the bathroom wash-basin - and settled down to sleep.