It’s 5 November, and Bonfire Night (also called Guy Fawkes) in my part of the world. My current writing (WIP), a historical set in Celtic times, just happens to feature celebratory bonfires.
It made me remember lots of bonfire nights of my childhood in a Glasgow housing scheme of the late 1950s, and early 1960s. I’m old you’re saying? Yep. But I'd like to share the memories with you!
I LOVED Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night.
The Fireworks Code was around somewhere…and though British Government legislation may have decreed that fireworks should only be bought by adults, and set off by responsible people...that didn't seem to be the way of it. Why did I love it then? Good Question.
It was EXCITING on a freezing cold night. When the sky was clear it was a time of magic. (When it rained…or…dearie me…snowed… it was miserable.) Regardless, it was a BIG night on the year’s calendar, and was COMPULSORY. If your parents bought fireworks you went out and let them off, even if your butt was frozen!
Everyone around poured out of their houses to the nearest vacant ground, in my case the flat top of the hill near my house, and stood around the huge community bonfire in huddles. I say community, but it was not arranged by the city council in those days. The day before the event a mysterious someone would start a little pile of wood, strategically right in the middle of the vacant ground. Usually it would be an old chair, or an axed-up-into-bits old table, furniture of a sort that was really only fit for the bonfire. Once started neighbours would add to it and, lo and behold, by Nov 5 there was a huge bonfire that burned for hours. (I lived in an area of new council housing of apartment blocks, the people in the main on the breadline, which meant a good chance of a lot of rubbish added to the pyre.)
Another interesting, and sometimes creatively exciting THING, was the GUY. (Explanation for name given below!) No, not just any old guy. A GUY for Bonfire Night was a sort of scarecrow that was created from old clothes, but it had to be male clothing. A typical GUY would be created from a shirt, a pair of old trousers and jacket. A hat was compulsory and sometimes an old scarf, gloves etc. would be added. The clothing was stuffed with newspapers scrunched up to fill out the clothes- hence the guy! A VERY SPECIAL GUY though, because the creators of the figure would go round the doors of the houses and ask ‘A PENNY FOR THE GUY?’ If it was a good one my mother would give them a penny. Thing is, I never really thought about what those creators (usually boys) did with the pennies they collected. No doubt they went off and bought a BANGER, or two, to frighten the old ladies around the area!
On Bonfire Night each little huddle of people stood around the bonfire and set off their own Roman Candles, Rockets, Fountains, Cracker-Jacks, Bangers, Catherine Wheels- as many as I can recall names for. I’m pretty sure there was always a nominated bonfire person chosen to light the fire-for we did have an unofficial community group of sorts.There was always hours worth of little displays, though each family box maybe only held around 20 fireworks. Multiply 20 fireworks by 10 families in a huddle, each taking turns to set them off…and lots of other huddles…that was a LOT OF TIME spent watching fireworks. The highlight, of course, for a child was to hold a Sparkler. Some families were cavalier with fireworks, hence the dangers, but wearing a glove was a must for me who was a feartie (frightened)!
The noise from the bonfire and the fireworks going off, all so close by, meant it was excitedly noisy!There was a sense of neighbourliness about it, for if a parent disappeared (maybe to watch Coronation Street, or The High Chaparral? on TV ) there were always plenty of other adult neighbours around to oversee. No Neighbourhood Watch- more that they were ‘sort of there’. If any delinquent teenagers wanted to make any high jinks then they did not do it around us.
I never ever remember the fire brigade being called to deal with an emergency and only once do I remember an incident where someone was seriously burned by a firework. It did happen, though, hence the upsurge of legislation.
Sad to say the neighbourliness faded out after a number of years – the BONFIRES and the FIREWORKS continued, though.
In later years when my own kids were young we set of fireworks in our garden, and often went to a large celebration Firework Display with Bonfire- this time organised and set off by the Fire Department. The background music at those events is fabulous and adds to the festive atmosphere.
Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November! Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!
Why do we have Bonfire Night? – Here’s the British historical bit!
BONFIRE NIGHT also known as GUY FAWKES is always on 5 November.
Guy Fawkes was a member of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. A group of 13 people aimed to blow up the Houses of Parliament with a view to killing King James I, and other Members of Parliament, who were making life difficult for Roman Catholics at the time. (Henry the Eighth having overturned the apple cart to divorce unwanted wives ) The Gunpowder Plot, however, did not go according to plan. Some of the plotters had second thoughts, perhaps believing that innocent people would die by mistake. A letter of warning was sent from one conspirator to another. The letter was intercepted and sent to King James I. (That’s James the first of the United Kingdom [Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales], the same man who was simultaneously King James the 6th of Scotland.) You may be saying how come? But that’s another history lesson!
Anyway, Guy Fawkes was in the cellar, under the House of Lords, with 36 barrels of gunpowder when the authorities caught him in the early hours of November 5. He was tortured and executed.
On that night, 5 November 1605, bonfires were set alight to celebrate that the king was unharmed. The tradition has continued every year since then with fireworks, and the burning of effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire.
Have you any fireworks stories to add? Nights when you celebrate a special event with you own bonfire or firework display? I'd love you to share them with me!