31 Jul 2009
There will be fireworks
The French do like their feux d'artifice – fireworks. Almost every village fête and foire ends the day with a grand firework display, and they are usually entirely free. Even the smallest display is pretty spectacular.
It used to be that the displays were set off by members of the comité des fêtes. This meant that the fireworks were arranged fairly haphazardly on the day, and then set off by a couple of blokes wandering around with cigarettes in their lips, which they used to light the blue touch papers. While there may have been some basic concepts behind the actual sequences of the display, they were often not much in evidence. The end was usually signified by one of the men waving a torch in the direction of the audience, rather than it being obvious from the final explosions of light and smoke.
Not unreasonably, there were some concerns about public safety, and the French equivalent of the UK Elfin Safety department issued guidance, as they say. Now the displays are professionally organised, by companies such as France Artifice, and much better. The ignition process is electric, which means greater control of timing and sequences, and thus the development of themes, and a much better sense of a flow of different fireworks, and a grand and obvious climax.
The presence of electricity on the site means that they displays can be accompanied by music. At its best, the fireworks and the music are integrated; and it is not always Handel. At its worst, as at a recent display I went to, the fireworks were set off to random, dreadful, right wing American country and western recordings. I am sure they were the personal choice of the organiser, who probably didn't understand the words, but for rational English speakers the music and lyrics were excruciating.
The other downside is that quite often the local maire uses the occasion to make a speech, or even worse the chairman of the comité des fêtes seizes his moment to congratulate himself. Neither type ever seems to have any microphone technique, so they usually shout into the mike and render themselves unintelligible because of amplification distortion, or they almost swallow the mike and everything is lost in the sound of their breathing.
Very often, the fireworks displays are preceded by une retraite aux flambeaux – a parade of children carrying flaming torches. There are two significant problems with this. Firstly, it is very difficult to organise a group of small children, and virtually impossible if they are accompanied by their parents, who always want their child at the front, or with a different torch, or with a specific friend, or whatever. This means that it takes half an hour longer to start the parade than planned, during which time some of the children start to cry, others lose their torches, or their interest.
The other problem is that usually the torches are Chinese paper lanterns with candles, often suspended from small branches cut from trees. Here we have two new problems. The children tend to swing the branches around, or get tired and let them droop. This results in the paper catching fire. This in turn often leads to the leaves on the branches also catching on fire. The children then start to panic, their parents wade in to put out the fires, and the entire parade descends into chaos.
This adds to the delays and explains why the grand spectacle usually starts an hour late. There are other causes of late starts. At one, at Christmas in the town square, the street lights were between the audience and the fireworks, which would have ruined everything. Unfortunately, the man with the key to the part of the mairie which controlled the street lights was on holiday. It took an hour to find a way in, and turn off the lights. At another, the delay was because the repas – the dinner in the marquees - was late starting and finishing, and the volunteers who organised the dinner had to finish clearing up the area for the subsequent bal populaire – public dance – and they were entitled to see the fireworks; the several hundred other people waited around in the dark until they were ready.
But the displays really are good.