»  The Straggler, No. 38

December 5th, 2005

  Bonfire Memories


Please to remember
The fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason, and plot!

Oh, I remember. My very earliest Guy Fawkes Nights were family affairs. Dad would have made up a modest bonfire in the back yard and bought a box of assorted fireworks from our local store, the same place where we got our newspapers, candy, and soda. When darkness had fallen and we could already hear fireworks going off in the neighborhood, we'd put our winter coats on, troop out down the garden, and light the bonfire. It had a rough-made Guy on it, of course, stuffed with back copies of Dad's Daily Mirror, and it was very thrilling to watch the Guy go up in flames and to wonder darkly how things would proceed with an actual person there. You had to have a Guy on your bonfire. The only place that didn't was St. Peter's School in York, alma mater of the actual Guido Fawkes, where it was felt that burning an alumnus in effigy showed poor school spirit.

You got a good selection of fireworks in those boxes. Lamest were the volcanos, conical things that you set on the ground and lit the apex of. They sputtered out varicolored flames and sparks. A small step up on the excitement scale were roman candles, cylindrical and held in the hand (lit end away from you, of course). The Catherine wheel was a long thin tube of paper stuffed with powder and wound in a spiral around a small wooden disk. You nailed the disk to (in our case) one of the poles that supported the family clothes line. Once lit, the thing spun round, emitting a lovely circular display of flames. Then there were bangers, of course: you lit them, threw them on the ground, put your fingers in your ears, and waited for the bang. More exciting was the jumping jack, which banged many times in quick succession, jumping at each bang, everyone knocking in to each other in the semi-darkness to get out of its way. My favorites were the rockets, always on a long stick. You put the stick into an empty milk bottle, lit the taper, and stood back. My sister, in common with most girls, preferred "sparklers" — lengths of wire coated to halfway along with some hard substance that burned with a fizzing white brilliance. In the darkness of a small-town November night you could write your name in the air with a sparkler before it burned down, the light so bright it lingered on the retina. I remember, I remember.

When I was a little older, with the liberty that came to older children in that time, and in every previous time, back to Tom Sawyer and beyond, but which has since been abolished in the interest of, what? I forget — when I was a little older, I say, I joined in setting up the neighborhood boys' bonfire. It was an immense thing, twelve feet high or more, on some waste ground nearby. Scrap wood and old furniture — discarded sofas or armchairs were in great demand at this time of year — had been diligently piled up for weeks before. The great fear was that some idiot from the neighborhood, or some commando squad from a rival neighborhood, would sneak in and torch your bonfire. Sentries were posted, as best this could be managed under parental dinner-time and bed-time rules. In fact I never knew of a bonfire being prematurely lit, though it would have been easy to do. I think the deed was just too dastardly for anyone to carry out. On the Fifth, of course, the thing would go up gloriously, all the neighborhood boys standing round, tossing bangers at each other and sending up rockets. The older element tried to smoke cigarettes and made amateurish attempts to impress the few girls present.

In the weeks before, while fireworks were on sale, experiments were undertaken. Bangers could be dropped into milk bottles (not recommended) or down street gratings, poked up drainpipes, or, in the open fields beyond the edge of the town, imbedded in cowpats. I am proud to say that I went considerably beyond these merely explosive adventures. Inspired by Werner Buedeler's book Telescopes, Rockets, Stars, which I had read from cover to cover a dozen times over, I was bent on constructing a multistage launch vehicle by tying two store-bought rockets together and adjusting the lengths of their fuses. I actually got this to work, and even achieved separation of the two stages, though the development budget wiped out a month's pocket money.

We had never heard of Halloween back then. I am told that nowadays, in the glutted abundance of postindustrial society, English kids celebrate both festivals. In fact, Guy Fawkes and his 1605 plot against King James I notwithstanding, they are both the same festival. Fifty years ago, as Iona and Peter Opie noted in their book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren: "When darkness closes in on the vigil of All Saints' Day, Britain has the appearance of a land inhabited by two nations with completely different cultural backgrounds …" Half the nation celebrated Halloween, half held off until Guy Fawkes Night.

Both halves were keeping alive a tradition that stretched back to long before the wars of religion, indeed to before religion itself. The pastoralists of the ancient British Isles divided the year not according to planting and harvests but at the points where livestock could be released to graze freely, or needed to be brought in to the homestead stalls. With the coming of winter, cattle could not be left out on frozen pastures to suffer cold and darkness. Neither could the spirits of the ancestors. All needed to be brought in to warmth and light. The economics of winter feeding demanded that many animals be slaughtered. Their meat was salted away, their bones burned in the welcoming fires — bone fires. From a roadside somewhere in France on a hot June evening in 1915, Private John Henry Knowles, my mother's father, wrote to my grandmother: "Dear wife tell my sons we are close to the big guns and people walk about as if it was bonyfire night …" Granddad, though barely literate, had his etymology right.

The Opies: "The guy has long ago been burnt and forgotten. The last firework has been exploded. The bonfire becomes all-important, and somehow it seems to be a heathen Hallowe'en fire they are attending." I remember, I remember.