I really loved the way Lambeth always provided a free fireworks show for residents every year. Although obviously paid for out of our council taxes, it always felt generous and fun: a real community building experience the entire community could and did enjoy.
However times are tough and cash-strapped councils have to look to their bottom line in these days of endless austerity. So I feel very conflicted by Lambeth’s move this year to a ticketed event in Brockwell Park.
Brockwell is the only park in Lambeth with the potential to ‘hide’ a fireworks display from non-paying watchers - Clapham Common is completely open (The tories over in Wandsworth pioneered this approach in Battersea Park in the early 90s). Clapham Common has the best public transport access in the area as well. The Council claimed traffic was a problem with the Common’s event, which is why it moved to Brockwell originally. Brockwell’s poor public transport access however means a large proportion of the many thousands attending walk all the way from Brixton station on narrow pavements alongside busy roads in the dark.
As one approaches the park, many wardens were there to make repeated requests to ‘stay on the pavement’: but sheer weight of numbers make this completely impossible.
When I heard that the display was no longer free, I did consider boycotting it but in the end decided to go.
Sadly, the whole atmosphere of the event has changed.
Although Lambeth planned for around 50,000 attendees (around half of last year’s 100,000), people were crammed into a relatively small fenced-off area, which meant standing shoulder-to-shoulder in pretty packed conditions - not great for the many parents of small children there. Inadequate signposting in the dark meant getting into and out of the event was quite difficult and indeed frightening for some parents with toddlers. To me it felt like all the security was in aid of excluding non-payers and not on the safety of those attending.
Surprisingly for a commercial event (and in stark contrast to the free events of the past), the show was beset with organisational problems. The display started 30 minutes late, with no indication of why this was so, apart from blaming some people who had strayed into the fireworks fallout zone. Why this happened is unclear - never happened before to my knowledge. Were the security staff too busy checking tickets to keep an eye on the crowd?
When the show began, it unfortunately began with a poorly conceived “human catherine wheel” which must have been entirely invisible to 90%+ of the attendees. There were many disappointed and sarcastic comments around where I was standing - about a third of the way back and directly in line with the wheel. I am 5’11”, there were no trees in the way, and I couldn’t see a thing. People in front were holding up mobile phones - I could see on the screens the phone cams weren’t picking anything up either! Only in the dying moments of the act did we see a dim glow in the distance. Note to organisers: this sort of curtain-raising event needs to be elevated so the crowd can actually see it. A pre-warm-up event - the excellent electricity boys - were slightly elevated and this made all the difference.
The fireworks proper started immediately afterwards and as usual, were magnificent. Excellent choreography and pacing, with terrific variety of types and stupendous climaxes. I also enjoyed the soundtrack and felt the sound system was better than usual: however, as mentioned above I was nearish to the front and I gather those behind found the fairground music clashed with the fireworks soundtrack. I couldn’t hear the fairground at all.
And then a crush in the dark to get out. Following others blindly in the hope they knew where to go (in the absence of any direction from the organisers). Mud everywhere.
We’ll see what I feel like next year. Although I am sure the fireworks will be as spectacular as always and well worth the £7 charge, I’m not sure I am prepared to put up with all the hassle of actually attending the event.