This Saturday is the fifth of November. It was once known as ‘Bonfire Night’, ‘Firework Night’, or ‘Guy Fawkes’ Night’. When I was a child, it was eagerly anticipated. Wood and combustibles would be collected during the preceding weeks, and stacked into bonfire piles on old bombsites, or cleared areas in London. Children and their parents would use old clothes to build a ‘Guy’, a dummy to represent the unfortunate Mr Fawkes, that would eventually be placed on top of the bonfire, to be consumed in the flames.
Great care was taken with these effigies, as we would them sit with them outside shops or pubs, asking strangers to give us a, ‘Penny for the Guy, please.” The money collected would be used to buy fireworks, which would be set off around the bonfires, adding to the annual celebration. Sometimes, we would travel to the house of a family friend or relative, those lucky enough to have a garden. There we would have a ‘firework party’, watching as the adult men set off the various fireworks, as we warmed ourselves in front of the bonfire outside. Traditional food would accompany these events, usually baked potatoes, and sausages.
Every year, we would chant this old English folk verse.
When I was very young, I didn’t really understand the reason behind all this. I was just happy to be out on a cold night, watching the fireworks, and enjoying the heat of the bonfire. Back then, (the late 1950s) fireworks could not be bought at any other time of the year, so it was always special. I still remember the smells of those nights, and seeing the debris the next morning; paper cases and sticks from spent rockets, burned planks where Catherine Wheels had been nailed into fences.
The high point of the evening was to watch the carefully-constructed ‘Guy’ catch fire, and disappear into the flames. We would have been wearing cheap cardboard masks, and holding sparklers, attempting to write our names in the light trails they produced. Like most things in childhood, it always seemed to be over far too quickly, and we would soon be talking about bigger and better bonfires and ‘Guys’ for next year. I don’t remember when I considered myself to be too old to go to these parties, but I was probably around thirteen. Many years later, they were popular once again, this time for adults. We would go to a friend’s house, and set off a huge amount of fireworks, usually accompanied by lots of barbecue food, and copious amounts of beer.
These days, some families continue the tradition, though most prefer to attend the many organised and controlled displays run by local authorities, or organisations. You don’t see children asking for a ‘Penny for the Guy’ anymore; that is probably considered to be unsafe, in our protected world. Fireworks are rightly considered to be dangerous these days, and their sale is carefully regulated. People are also more aware and considerate of the distress caused to pets and farm animals by the constant explosions and screaming rockets, something we never thought of back then.
It is also very close to Halloween, hard on the heels of all the expenditure and excitement of this relatively recent import from America. Something we didn’t have to think about, when I was young. But it still goes on, albeit diminished in importance, and overshadowed by modern excitements. Perhaps it is worth looking into why it came about in the first place, for those too young to share my fond memories.
Guy Fawkes was an English Catholic, born in 1570. He later became part of a notorious plot to kill the King, James I, and establish a Catholic kingdom in Protestant England. He and his fellow conspirators leased a large cellar beneath the Palace of Westminster, directly below the House of Lords. They planned to fill it with barrels of gunpowder, and detonate the explosives when the King came to the palace, thereby killing all the Lords of England, and the King, at the same time. Fawkes was tasked with guarding the barrels, and was discovered there, on the 5th of November, 1605. The group had been betrayed, and an anonymous letter of warning had been sent to the authorities.
(Image from Wikipedia)
Fawkes was imprisoned and tortured, eventually confessing to his part in the plot. He was sentenced to the brutal execution of being hanged, drawn, and quartered, but was lucky enough to die from the hanging, avoiding the rest of that awful process.
Commemoration of the plot’s failure has continued ever since.