Guy Fawkes Night (aka Bonfire Night) was a major event in the calendar up until comparatively recently. For kids like me, growing up in the rural Glamorgan/Gwent borderlands in the 1950s and 1960s, the 5th of November was anticipated with mounting excitement from the start of autumn onwards. As the nights drew in and winter began to take hold, all the boys, tomboys and young men in the locality devoted every spare moment to collecting wood of all shapes and sizes, from kindling twigs via fallen branches to heavy logs. With the older lads in charge of construction, the material was systematically piled up into a towering edifice in the middle of the Williams’ paddock at Bwthyn Teg Derw near Cefn Mabli. Meanwhile groups of children would make their ‘guy’, using straw and newspaper to stuff old clothes into a scarecrow-like effigy topped by a head contrived from a stuffed pillowcase with beady eyes, a parsnip nose, a painted mouth and a hat. As November approached these guys – some works of genuine creativity, others more rough and ready – were taken door-to-door around the neighbourhood in wheelbarrows or prams and presented for inspection at each house to a squeaky chorus of “penny for the guy”. With the accumulated coppers there was usually enough to buy a few fireworks, back then available more or less without restriction in every local shop in Rumney, Llanrumney and St Mellons.
By comparison, the almost coterminous pagan-derived rituals at the end of October marking the beginning of winter (Halloween/All Hallows/Nos Calan Gaeaf) were just a minor distraction in the build up to Guy Fawkes – the overwhelming imposition of American cultural imperialism, trashy consumerism and commercialisation being still in the future – and involved little more than sticking a candle in a hollowed-out swede, draping oneself in a white sheet with cut out eye-holes and running round the lanes making spooky noises.
When the big night came it was a genuine community gathering around the scorching heat of the blazing pyre, which was topped by the best guy of the lot made at the local Women’s Institute. In the stereotypical gender-specific roles of the era, fathers took charge of the fireworks, mothers sorted out the food. At the time the UK firework market was dominated by Standard Fireworks of Huddersfield (founded 1891, went into receivership 1998, now a subsidiary of Black Cat Fireworks of China) and all the dads had their own selection box of Standard products which, in a subliminal arm-wrestle of competitive ‘manliness’, were launched in a steady sequence through the evening: catherine wheels, roman candles, mount vesuviuses, jumping jacks, bangers and show-stopping rockets. It was a case of light the blue touchpaper and retreat to a safe distance as the air crackled with explosions, the night sky filled with multi-coloured pyrotechnics to whoops and gasps, the sweet smell of cordite wafted through the crowd and the smaller children twinkled magical trails of fairy dust with hand-held sparklers.
The food was a delight (food always seems to taste better outdoors for some reason, which presumably accounts for the popularity of barbecues): potatoes baked in their jackets in the bonfire’s hot embers, sausages sizzling in the flames on the end of forks, toffee apples on sticks and chunks of losindu butterscotch. Perhaps the paramount pleasures for us children were in the thrill of being out at night with the grown-ups, the steep learning curve of mixing freely in a multi-faceted social context, the sense of belonging derived from folk customs handed down the generations, and the indefinable, uncategorisable sensation of the sheer elemental nature of fire, of earth, of light, of dark, of life, of death, of things…
But I was so much younger then; I’m older than that now. Now I see that Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) was a hero not a villain for wanting to blow up the wicked Westminster den of iniquity; I understand that the Protestant v Catholic war Fawkes was part of was the foundation stone of the monstrous UK and all the horrors it has subsequently inflicted on the world; I despise the sanitised, hollowed-out, pearl-clutching, municipally-organised ‘fun’ that the occasion has become; and I despair at the air pollution, the plastic waste, the noise and the terrorising of wildlife and domestic pets that November 5th represents.
Forget, forget, that’s the best bet…
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