The prospect of tonight’s steady stream of youthful ‘trick or treaters’ (for readers around the globe, children in the UK visit houses at Hallowe’en to offer a choice: a trick played upon the household or a treat given by the household to the visitors to ward off any tricks) has stirred in me memories of the Bonfire Nights (or Guy Fawkes Nights) of my childhood.
I’m talking about a time when we didn’t ‘do’ Hallowe’en – at least, not in South Lincolnshire. Although I think it’s mainly an import from the USA (I anticipate contradiction!) , some parts of the UK did celebrate Hallowe’en, even then: when I went to university, my flat-mate, who came from Lancashire, told me how her two brothers at Hallowe’en, which they called ‘Mischief Night’, had removed the gates from their school and put them on the roof. But in Spalding, where I grew up, there was only Bonfire Night, celebrated on November 5th, the anniversary of the date on which Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. In retrospect, I realise that our Bonfire Nights incorporated some elements of Hallowe’en as well.
Bonfire Night was among my favourite events on the calendar. My brother and I started preparations weeks in advance, at first by collecting materials for as big a bonfire as our father would let us build at the bottom of our (quite large) garden. Then we’d beg old clothes from relatives to make a guy. He was constructed out of a shirt or jacket tacked on to a pair of trousers and stuffed with newspaper. The sleeves and legs of the trousers were fastened with string. His face would be made from a carved and hollowed-out mangold wurzel (field beet) containing a candle, if we were ambitious, or, more often than not, just covered with a cardboard mask bought from Woolworths. Each year there was a Woolworths counter overflowing with these masks, which featured the faces of ghosts, witches, pirates and skeletons; I think this was where the Hallowe’en element came in. The guy also wore a hat, if we could get one: good hats were in short supply. Guys were usually completed at least a week before Bonfire Night, so they could be showed off. We were allowed to sit ours outside the gate of our house with a tin bearing a ‘Penny for the Guy’ sign, but my mother wouldn’t let us push him around the streets begging for pennies, as some children did. She thought it was ‘common’!
The suspense leading up to Bonfire Night was huge. Teachers joined in the fun: I vividly remember making bonfires, guys and fireworks out of plasticine in a primary school art class. And we must have heard the story of the original Guy Fawkes – some of whose accomplices had had strong links with East Anglia – every single year. Along with 1066, it was certainly the episode in British history with which I was best acquainted.
At the end of school, we rushed home to dress up. Girls wore garish make-up and boys’ fathers often blacked their sons’ faces with pieces of cork held in the ashes of the fire or drew moustaches on them (some pictures of Guy Fawkes showed him with a twirling, Salvador Dali-type moustache). We wore whatever we could get together as fancy dress: it was before the era of the purpose-made (money-spinning) clothes that children’s parents buy for Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night now. Parents sometimes helped, and the outfits could be ingenious: I remember one child dressed as a skeleton – his mother had made an outfit out of black cartridge paper with the bones drawn on in white chalk. Girls often became witches for the night – we were taught at school how to make black pointed hats, also from cartridge paper. Whatever the outfit, we all had one of the cardboard masks from Woolworths (which were made out of the type of card now used for egg-boxes). We’d turn up at neighbours’ houses heavily disguised with our masks pulled down, then whip them up to reveal the made-up face beneath. The idea was that no-one could recognise us, with or without the mask.
We were permitted to take the guy with us on Bonfire Night itself. Ours was transported in the old family push-chair, an ancient conveyance made from khaki canvas and which had solid wheels. Although I suppose it’s unlikely that there were services-issue push-chairs, it looked as if it might have been army surplus, sold by the Army and Navy stores. I don’t think anyone in the family could remember where it originally came from. It was wide and cumbersome and difficult to take up and down the houses in the street without running off the paths and into people’s flower borders. Some children carried mangold wurzels or hollowed-out sugar beets with candles in them.
It was dark when we went Guy Fawkesing, but we were allowed to go round the houses on our own, though always in groups of at least three (my brother and I joined the two girls who lived next door). The boundaries were our street and the next one. The streets were thronged with children: it was the height of the baby boom and two or three children lived at almost every house. I’m sure we were all quite safe out on the streets that night.
There were just two rhymes that we chanted to the householders:
Please to remember
The fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Please spare a penny for the poor old guy!
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do;
If you haven’t got a ha’penny
Then God bless you!
The householder would then give us each a penny – sometimes twopence, if we were lucky – and usually some sweets as well. Sherbet dabs (boiled-sweet lollies in a bag of sherbet) and sherbet fountains (a tube of sherbet with a hollow ‘straw’ of liquorice to suck it up with) were my favourites. We carried old Ovaltine tins with string handles for the loot.
The trick was to get round as soon after dark as possible, before people ran out of treats, and then go home in time to see some of the children who came knocking at our own door and inspect their outfits. Sometimes when we went the rounds, early fireworks were already being let off and the air smelt excitingly of gunpowder.
After the last Guy Fawkesing stragglers had gone home, it was time to light the bonfire. First of all, the guy was seated on the top of it. Then my father would light the fire and we were instructed to stand back. I always felt a bit sad when the guy succumbed to the flames: he’d been a friend for the whole of the previous week… but there would be another one the next year. When he was well alight, my father began to light the fireworks. We always had a mixed box of Standard fireworks – I think they cost ten shillings (I’ve been amazed to read that a similar box now costs £45!) – a few ‘special’ fireworks, usually large golden rain or firework fountains (as we weren’t keen on loud bangs) or rockets, and some sparklers and hand-held fireworks. Each family had its own bonfire and fireworks: large firework parties for the whole neighbourhood had yet to be thought of. We baked potatoes in the ashes of the bonfire and ate toffee apples if the toffee apple man had been round that day (which he was usually enterprising enough to have managed). When we went into the house at the end of the evening, we were given vegetable soup with big hunks of bread to warm us up.
Miraculously, most of the Bonfire Nights of my childhood were bright and clear: I remember seeing rockets sailing into the stars. On the couple of times that it rained, we still went on the Guy Fawkesing rounds, but the bonfire had to be postponed until the next day. Then we were bitterly disappointed.