November the Fifth

Remember, remember the fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot!

I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really like Halloween because I have no fond childhood memories of “trick or treating”, having grown up in England in the 1950s when we celebrated Guy Fawkes’ failure to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

My father enjoyed garden bonfires and kept a suitable area of our long garden clear for that purpose, so he built the fire, always reminded by me to check for hedgehogs before lighting it. My treats were to make the guy with my grandfather and be taken to the newsagent’s to buy fireworks and the papier mâché mask for the guy. At the time it seemed as though these were annual events but probably only happened three or four times: paternal grandparents coming to stay during half-term, making the guy out of an old shirt and pair of trousers stuffed with newspaper and straw, with the mask for its face but probably no hat as neither parent was willing to give up an old one because it was “worn in the garden”.

Of course, I was never allowed to behave as I saw rather scruffy (read poor) little boys doing: displaying their home-made guys on the pavement, with a badly written sign begging “Penny for the Guy”, the idea being that their industry in making the guy was worth payment so they could buy fireworks. Technically these could only be sold to adults but Bangers – small cardboard cylinders with a fuse and just enough black powder to make an explosive noise – and Crackers, or Jumping Jacks – similar but made from a paper tube folded into a zigzag, tied with string, which would jump when lit – always seemed to find their way into the hands of small boys in the street.

I preferred pretty fireworks: Roman Candles which were larger tubes than Bangers but produced a cascade of coloured sparks rather than just noise, Catherine Wheels: similar in construction to Crackers but coiled in a circular, flat plane with a pin in the centre so that when attached to a fence post and lit, it would spin while emitting coloured sparks, ending with a whistle noise. I also liked Rockets: a version of Roman Candle on a wooden stem which was propped in a bottle. When lit, they launched into the air producing great showers of coloured sparks up high and often ending with a satisfying Bang! And Sparklers of course – big ones which lasted long enough to write the longest names in the air.

Although my parents shared Bonfire Night duty with neighbours, I remember best the parties at our house. My mother made sausage rolls and gingerbread but it was the fireworks in the dark garden which most impressed me. The excitement of choosing the next one to be lit, the anticipation while it was set up and the fuse burned and then the magic of coloured sparks against the dark sky. Catherine Wheels which did not always spin so had to be prodded by my father with a stick; on rare occasions one spun off its pin altogether, chasing squealing children and alarmed adults. Not that there was much danger, as there was always a bucket of water for emergencies and the area was covered in grass wet from dew or frost.

I think we always ended with sparklers but there was also the excitement in the usually dreary day after, searching for spent rockets which had landed in our garden, either from our or neighbours’ Bonfire Night celebrations.