That was me with worms. As a very small boy I was more than happy to grab them in the garden for our potions, and if you cut or pulled them in half well weren’t you doing them a favour, making two living creatures from one? Then I grew a bit squeamish, not so keen to handle them or have them waved in my face. Now I can take or leave a worm, wouldn’t order a whole plateful mind. And that is how kids will develop with fireworks, if you let them. So in my constant search for more things to be nostalgic about, I wanna take you back to my childhood in a way, to that special date in November that is
“What are you doing with the kids?” I asked daughter-in-law many years ago already.
“Nothing. Your grandson was scared of the fireworks last year, and it costs too much to take them there, especially just after Halloween with the costumes and sweets and everything.”
She wasn’t wrong. I had no realistic alternative to offer – we couldn't even burn fuel that produced smoke in our own grate, never mind have a bonfire in the garden – but I found it sad that the American-style festivities seem to have virtually displaced the English ones that have endured for hundreds of years. All right, All Hallows Eve, the Witches’ Sabbath, is even older, but the mortal fear of that night is only cartoonised, gorified in the Hollywood slasher series, definitely not fun for the whole family.
“Of course when I was younger, it was all different”, I knew better than to bore by saying. Long before our grandchildren arrived, the Fifth of November, far from being remembered, had been consigned to celebration, if at all, on the nearest weekend night. Nobody was allowed to go near kids with fireworks any more, never mind lend them matches to light them. You could only watch some council official in a fluorescent jacket set them off while you ate an overpriced hotdog at the town park.
My birthday is November first, so as a boy I could count on a gift of at least one box of Brock’s fireworks to set off a few days later. Always on the day itself mind, none of this any old time through to New Year (when did that start?). They were sold everywhere for a couple of weeks, loose or in packets ranging in price up into the pounds – and that was real pounds shillings and pence too, let me tell you. The morning of November sixth (why is that universally mispronounced on telly now, is it so much harder to say "sixth" than "sickth"?), while bonfires still smouldered in many a back garden, the fireworks had all vanished from the shops.
Fires per se were no big deal. In my East Anglian village, they were the accepted way of ridding ourselves of household and garden waste. In the build-up to Guy Fawkes Night (anyone still call it that nowadays?), we would plead at home to have the rubbish put out rather than binned, to underpin our own efforts. Shopkeepers and individual householders were used to groups of children coming around to beg for anything that would burn. We hit the jackpot one year at Stottie's, needing the big flat-topped barrow on which the parents loaded trays of strawberries to cart away all the cardboard boxes and general yard debris the chip shop owner (not yet Stottie) casually invited us to take. We were in competition with kids all over the village, so it was a coup to bring that back to our side of the river. In our half of our street alone we could expect to see four or five fires burning along the backs of the houses on the big night.
The bonfire was piled up without any science, but it had to have as its crowning glory an effigy of the hapless Guido Fawkes, who after his agonising death in 1606 (by hanging rather than fire, but without skimping on the torture beforehand) was posthumously pilloried for the next few centuries all over England. We were tough on religious terrorists all right.
Every year we would get a classroom lecture on the history behind the night – Catholic plot to blow up King at opening of Parliament, conspirators caught without an explanation for the kegs of gunpowder they were toting through its cellars – with a few warnings about keeping pets indoors and being careful with the fireworks. All we took from it was permission to stuff a pair of Dad’s old trousers and a shirt with straw, cobble together a face out of cardboard if nothing better came to hand, and round it off if we were lucky with a hat and some kind of footwear beyond socks. The more lifelike the Guy, the argument went, the more chance we had of a generous donation, though the formula was unvaryingly modest: “Penny for the Guy, please?” (when a penny was still a penny). Pitches outside Tuck’s – the village eternal grocer – were much prized; otherwise we were reduced to going door to door, the dummy lolling slackly in a wheelbarrow.
Usually two or three families with children would get together, pooling resources for the fire and sometimes even insisting that we share our hard-earned fireworks. It was a rite of passage to graduate from being allowed to hold only sparklers to set some proper fireworks off yourself (only a little diluted by the times you had already done it when there were no adults around). Bangers, Catherine Wheels – often a disappointment, nailed on too hard to spin or fizzing off their board altogether to expire in the mud – Roman Candles, all were subordinate to the rockets which would end the display. These would be launched from empty milk bottles into the night sky – always clear, always star-carpeted - as Guy caught light at the top of his pyre.
While casually mindful of our welfare, the adults were happy to let us play in the skirts of the bonfire as well as set off the fireworks. Wrapped up against the inevitable cold of a November evening, already dark for three hours or more, we were soon sweating inside our various layers of clothing, faces red, hair to be washed the next day whether it was Sunday or not to try to rid it of the smoke we were inhaling. Potatoes and sausages might be brought out from a kitchen to go with Dandelion and Burdock for us and hot drinks for our parents (serious drinking was done, if at all, in a pub rather than at home).
It is not sentimentality or nostalgia that makes those distant but still bright Bonfire Nights feel at once more intimate and more genuinely communal than today’s council-sponsored or blatantly commercial extravaganzas. The key was participation. Instead of spectating beside people we have never met before, will not speak to on the evening and will never recognize again, we were amongst family, friends and neighbours we saw every day of our lives. We had built the fire stick by scrap. We had primped and pimped the Guy. We had saved, worked and begged for our fireworks, earning the right to light them. The garden, like the house, may have belonged to the Council, but on that night it was ours to use as we wished, as our parents and grandparents had.
And did I enjoy Bonfire Night this year? The drive to park in a field, the funfair rides heresy (the fair is a separate treat, but at least the tradition of the rigged shooting gallery was maintained)? Foods Grandad never heard of, no Guy on what was just a fire? The firework display was spectacular sure, but remote. You couldn't have dragged me to it, except being there with daughter and grandson I wouldn't have missed for the world.