A few weeks before Bonfire Night, a series of posters appeared in the windows of my local newsagents advertising Bright Star’s latest range of fireworks. Unusually, there wasn’t a rocket or catherine wheel in sight. Instead the boxes (right) resembled macho Airfix kits: there were the Desert Storm and Fire in the Hole sets, the Air Assault and Armoury collections and the Apocalypse barrage pack, containing both the Death City and End of Days fireworks. No doubt, they laugh in the face of sparklers.
Helping customers in their search for the biggest and baddest explosions, brands such as Bright Star are upping the militaria to the max, evoking the aesthetics of video games and recent operations in the Middle East. While fireworks have always adopted the enticing language of explosives, with ‘mines’ and ‘mortars’ part of your average pyrotechnician’s vocabulary, the whoosh of the Star Gazer and the whizz of the Orbiter 9 now compete with the relentless Cyborg Massacre.
Fireworks are an interesting product in that their point of difference is staked out while they lie inert in a box. The reason we buy them is for what happens after we light them, an experience that’s largely impossible to convey on the box they come in, or on the cardboard tubes and cones that house them. We buy into the potential, all tightly packaged up in a mixture of combustible materials. So artwork, packaging, even naming, is everything.
At fireworkscatalog.com, Bob Weaver has recorded over 6,500 of the different fireworks that have appeared on the US market since the late 90s up to the present day. A quick scroll through just the ‘A’ section and there are reams of rockets and shells with the prefix Artillery; there are Air Bombs, Air Defenders and Air Raids (and my favourite, as a pleasing counterpoint, the Aaahhhh).
“Thirty years ago most fireworks were imported from China and so had names that were made up over there,” says Weaver. “Some were very nice, such as Garden of Innumerable Flowers, Spring Greeting and Festival of Happiness, and the artwork had a more Chinese style to it. As American importers gradually developed their own brands – still made in China but with US-style package design – there was definitely a trend towards military-inspired names.” Weaver, an expert on the US market who maintains fireworksland.com, suggests that many manufacturers are even running low on names to convey “the ‘big and bad’ concept”, with up to 500 new fireworks hitting the US market each year.
In the UK, Black Cat fireworks (the Chinese firm who now own the famous Standard brand that founded in Huddersfield in 1891) list the contents of their Gold Selection Box using the more generic language of fireworks types. There are fountains, roman candles, cakes, wheels and rockets – no assasins (sic), blitzkreigs or nuclear fallouts to be seen.
“It’s changed from having aesthetically pleasing artwork that offered a clue about how each firework functioned,” explains Steve Johnson, curator of fireworkmuseum.co.uk, “to more corporate style labels that have little resemblance to the actual firework.” Johnson cites two classics, the Traffic Light and the Snow Storm, as indicative of the resolutely descriptive naming system that seems to be on the way out: one went green, orange and red, the other … well, you get the idea. Even the language of space exploration, reaching its peak during the UK’s fireworks golden age of the 1950s and 60s, is still infused in Black Cat’s current selection of rocket packs: there are Solar Strobes, Sputnik Explorers and Mega Meteors to choose from.
John Bennett, editor of Fireworks magazine, suggests that while the current influx of militaria is merely one strand of fireworks, it’s one that always comes and goes. “The names of fireworks tend to reflect the times they’re made in,” he says. “There have been Boer War-related names, for example, after the Second World War you got the Spitfire and later on the Polaris and Blue Streak referenced the missiles when they were around.”
So perhaps a box of Shock ‘n’ Awe (a rather unsubtle nod to the US bombing of Baghdad in 2003) is no different.
The irony is that due to strict UK regulations, domestic shop bought fireworks only go up to a certain level of intensity. So be it a Kamikaze Killer or a Dogs of War, it’ll only provide as big a bang as the next one.