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Light the blue touch paper and stand well clear

"Empire Day became just a wonderful excuse for kids to let off fireworks."

Sydneysider: A personal journey

Australia Day – or Bogan Day, as its political boosters have made it – is on an inevitable collision course with history.

Annual celebrations and holidays begin for reasons of religious, ethnic, national or international solidarity but drift relentlessly toward being just another opportunity to party, or into fatal irrelevance. Very often they have unintended and socially toxic consequences.

In the early years of my life in Sydney – I’m talking about the 1950s and early ‘60s – the most important, officially-recognised annual celebrations were Christmas, Easter, Anzac Day and Cracker Night.

Christmas was just Christmas: an ancient pagan winter festival eagerly anticipated by children because they got a windfall of presents. Devout Christians still think it’s something to do with the birth of Christ (an interpretation grafted on later), but as a kid, I saw that as a boring a sideshow. Easter was something to do with Christianity too, but mostly it was an all-too-brief holiday before winter set in. Tragically, it almost always rained.

Anzac Day was exciting because of all the marching, banners, and bands. It also penetrated very deeply into the national psyche because most kids had a father, mother, uncle or grandparent who had fought in one (or even both) of the world wars. But for kids – apart from those co-opted to the unfortunate custom of marching with the medals of dead parents – it was something you just watched. You couldn’t really participate because you hadn’t been there. Then as the decades passed; as the smell of cordite could no longer even be imagined; as old diggers died off and our wars became fewer, smaller and more controversial, it was clear that the sands were running out for Anzac Day.

But as a kid, the most exciting celebration of all was Cracker Night, or, as it was officially known, Empire Day. The May 24 holiday had been established to honour Queen Victoria after her death in 1901. Throughout the British Empire, it was an occasion for flag-flying, official receptions, speeches, parades, bonfires, and fireworks. I suspect that, in Australia, the fireworks part was an official opportunity to displace Guy Fawkes Day, whose origins in British protestant triumphalism were a sectarian embarrassment in a new nation with a big Irish Catholic component.

After WWII, with old style colonial imperialism in disgrace and the Empire winding down, Empire Day became just a wonderful excuse for kids to let off fireworks.

Commerce is conscienceless, and year by year, fireworks went on sale earlier. I remember every week badgering my parents for a few more shilling to buy more firecrackers, skyrockets, ‘mortars’, ‘Catherine wheels’, ‘volcanoes’, and sparklers for the family arsenal.

Firecrackers came in various sizes, ranging from strings of little ones called tom thumbs, whose wicks were woven together in chains so that they exploded in quick succession, to ‘bungers’ – red paper cylinders about a centimeter in diameter. Then there were the fearsome ‘double bungers’ which were about two centimetres wide. Double bungers could be used by mischievous boys to demolish letter boxes, particularly the very small ones built into brick fences. If the residents had secured the rear flap with a bolt or padlock the effect was most gratifying.

For weeks before the big night we collected old timber and tyres for the neighbourhood bonfire and stacked them into a tall pile on the wide verge, opposite our house in Edgar Street, Strathfield, adjoined one of St Patrick’s College ovals.
Skyrockets were launched by putting the stick into a beer bottle whose base was sunk in sand in a shallow cardboard box. A notice on each of these pyrotechnics enjoined the user to “light the blue touch paper and stand well clear”.
Typically, the whole arsenal would be expended and the bonfire would have burned down by about ten o’clock. In the morning the atmosphere was hazy with smoke and stunk of gunpowder.

In 1958, the foundation of the British Commonwealth led to the event being renamed Commonwealth Day but the Commonwealth itself was an illusion. The inevitable downside of Empire Day was that lots of kids were maimed or blinded fooling around with fireworks. As the fireworks sales season stretched out, the crop of injuries and the public nuisance created by kids increased. The whole event fell into disfavour and there was little protest when the NSW government closed it down in 1986.

Australia Day is a recent and very artificial event, invented in the mid-1980s as Commonwealth Day became irrelevant and Anzac Day began to fade out. For cheap electoral gain, the Howard Government steered the whole thing heavily towards binge drinking, flag waving, and the bogan xenophobia and anti-multiculturalism of Pauline Hanson. It’s been stuck there ever since.

As a “unifying” celebration overriding social divisions it’s an illusion. Surveys show only a quarter of the population claim to have attended an official Australia Day event. An awful lot of that is fun runs, ute rallies and free events with face-painting for little kids. The same folk would attend if these events were staged on the birthday of Genghis Khan. Another quarter say they celebrated with family and friends, but that’s a meaningless statistic. After all, most people “celebrate” Christmas and Easter, but very few with any respect for their origins.

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