“Big up for Wandsworth Council” shouted the DJ/ compere at Battersea Park Fireworks on Saturday night. The 30-somethings who made up most of the crowd, wearing Hunter wellies and referring to Clapham Junction as “Clapham J,” did their best to ignore him, but it wasn’t easy. His amp was almost as loud as it was distorted and their earmuffs were only so thick. “Give me a scream if you’re at the hot dog stand,” he cried only to be met with shuffling apathy. A woman muttered that he was “shattering the ambiance.”
This year you had to buy tickets via Ticketmaster. In the past it was the council website or one of the various huts within the park. It also used to cost £5; now it’s £6-£10 and booking fees for the privilege of using a site that counts down how many minutes you have to enter your card details (2.31, 2.30. 2.29, oh my god, what’s my ‘verified by visa’ security code???) The American Embassy is coming, the Boris Bike stations are in place and you’re no longer allowed to bring your own sparklers. Battersea is changing. But you just need to look at house prices to know that.
In some ways, the Battersea fireworks display is morphing into a corporate machine where anyone coming to watch simply exists to keep the ferris wheel of fortune turning. Whether you’re queuing up to have your ticket stamped or to exchange pound notes for doughnuts, someone is shaking a charity bucket in your face (“it’s only a few pence. Don’t you have a few pence?”) or flyering you to join a £50 a month gym. But there’s still something magical about staring into the sky with a crowd of people doing the same and waiting for the lights rain down – even if it’s to the sound of a DJ shouting, “In a few minutes fireworks will be coming in ya face. Bang!”
This year’s theme for the display, which is always accompanied by music, was “Shrieks and Skulls,” which is pretty avant-garde compared to what we normally have. Indeed, I’m not even sure if there normally is a ‘theme.’ Last year, it might have been something to do with the Olympics and mainly involved a lot of R&B, perhaps in an effort to appeal to the audience the organisers would like to bring to the event rather than the one that actually comes.
However, whoever designed this year’s display achieved a remarkable feat: they made a mainstream council-organised piece of entertainment their own. I have an image of them in my head: a middle-aged man in a Metallica t-shirt and black jeans with a CD collection dating back to a former life as a suburban teenage goth in the early 1990s. “How can I get away with a soundtrack that solely consists of the likes of Meatloaf, The Specials and lesser-known tracks from The Rocky Horror Picture Show?” he may have pondered. “I know. I’ll fuse two distinct and, until now, entirely separate events together and tell them it’s ‘Halloween themed.’” And it worked! Good for him.
With skulls formed from flames – made all the more sinister by the fact one’s eyes didn’t properly light – some asymmetrical rockets and offbeat chrysanthemum bursts, at times it even felt a little bit punk; a stark contrast to orderly queues to buy overpriced produce going on elsewhere. Maybe they’ll let this mysterious maverick behind it all back again next year and ‘punk’ will be the theme. Catherine wheels will spin to the sound of “Anarchy in the UK.” It would, after all, fit in well with what Guy Fawkes, a man who tried to blow up parliament, was all about. Or perhaps they’ll just revert to the classic ‘Bonfire Night’ and bring back a proper sized fire? I’m not sure why the usual mountain of blazing wooden pallets had been replaced with something that had less heat that a single hob gas cooker, but suspect it had something to do with whoever decided to ban the sparklers.