Remember, remember, the 5th of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
The excitement of Bonfire Night was imprinted at an age before my memory becomes linear, when the past was still a landscape dotted with events. It arrived seemingly out of nowhere. One day it was not Bonfire Night, and the next day it was, and suddenly the rules about not staying up late, not playing with fire, not being outside in the cold and not eating too many sweets were all broken, because those were the very elements of the festival.
In the days before municipal firework displays, my Dad would set off our own fireworks at the bottom of the garden. My friends and I all grew up knowing fireworks were dangerous; someone at school always knew someone else who’s friend had had their hand blown off, or who had lost an eye after mucking about with fireworks. Us kids (my sister and I) would stand well clear and be a little afraid when the sparks came too close. We were allowed sparklers, although when we were very young, a parent would hold the sparkler itself and we’d hold onto their hand, scared enough to keep our distance but fascinated by the silver sparks and the trail our names left in the air. I don’t know how old I was when I was allowed to hold my own sparklers, but it was a rite of passage. I would light the new one as the last one died and burn through them all too quickly. There were never enough.
After the fireworks our parents would take us to the local bonfire. A few of the neighbourhood teenagers might still bother to make a guy, which they would then parade door-to-door on a wheelbarrow in the week leading up to Bonfire Night, asking ‘Penny for the guy?’ There he’d be, sitting aloft the bonfire, burning merrily. The night was fire lit and full of strange, wonderful smells, smoke and chips, candyfloss and frying onions. It was a night of magic and trepidation: excitement could so easily turn to fear if one became lost in the cold, muddy field and the harmless shadows turned threatening. To our enormous relief, a familiar figure would break out of the crowd and we might be given chips in a newspaper cone, delicious bounty handed down to us. Of course no glove removed to enable eating was ever seen again.
Yesterday was perfect weather for Bonfire Night. The wind kept up all day, rattling the leaves and gusting unexpectedly so that the weather seemed mischievously unpredictable and teasing, as though it had a secret it might just share. Night fell cool and clear, an evening made to be scented with woodsmoke and brightened with fireworks that whizzed, banged, crackled, whistled, exploded into gold-white-silver flowers or rained in lavender and green sparks. I oohed and aahed, applauded and cheered, half-mocking and half grasping at childhood again.