Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
This well known rhyme has been sung in Britain by generations of children as November 5th approached. It is still sung in primary schools as children are taught the historical significance of Guy Fawkes Night / Bonfire Night and why it is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks. Literacy, drama and art work of all types also stem from this colourful spectacle.
There’s more than enough online about Guido Fawkes and his co-conspirators, and why they wanted to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament, so I won’t elaborate on that. Guido suffered one of the most horrible deaths imaginable for his part in the plot – and being the one caught with the barrels of gunpowder. Execution by being hung, drawn and quartered seems beyond belief to us today, although in 16th and 17th century England, treason was seen as the highest offence. And executions of all types were common.
Of course, on Bonfire Night we burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire, with fireworks a further fiery spectacle of celebration.
Nowadays there are many laws and restrictions regarding the sale and use of fireworks, the many horrendous accidents, particularly to children, being the reason. Now only adults (18+) can actually buy them. And the cost of fireworks has risen dramatically – so much so that most people tend to go to the organised displays, where they can see many, really expensive fireworks and a bonfire, for their entry fee.
How different this all is to years ago, when I was a child (way back in the Dark Ages) almost every household had its bonfire and fireworks in the back garden. Sometimes families grouped together for a communal bonfire and to share each other’s fireworks. Even when my children were young in the 70’s and early 80’s this was the case, although by then the big displays were finding favour too. But in my youth . . .
For weeks before the day we’d be getting ready. Tree branches and any bits of old wood would be grabbed by rampaging groups of kids and hawked back to gardens, to be defended to the death from other thieving kids!
At the same time, old clothes came out from chests and drawers to be stuffed full of old rags, newspaper and autumn leaves to make the Guy’s body. A bag stuffed with newspaper – or simply a big, tightly wrapped ball of it – formed the head, with a painted mask at the front.
How we treasured our guys! Over the week before November 5th, guys would be displayed around the streets in wheelbarrows and carts, with a sign, PENNY FOR THE GUY. And many people freely gave. The money would buy more fireworks. Nowadays this practice has died out. I suppose most modern parents would strongly object to this ‘begging’ tactic. But it was seen in a different light in the 50’s and 60’s.
Ah well . . . I still have my memories, and I still make parkin, though not always on Bonfire Night. Treacle toffee was never for me, but I loved the chestnuts and potatoes roasted around the fire.
At the modern, sophisticated displays we may see the impressive great mortars, but the little fireworks are what I remember: Roman Candles and Catherine Wheels, Mount Etnas and Rockets, Golden Rains and Rainbow Fountains and my favourites, the simple, hand-held Sparklers. I really hated bangers, but most lads thought they were great fun.
Sparklers are as popular now as they were in my day. Who doesn’t love to make fiery squiggles and circles in the air on a dark night?
We can also still buy boxes of mixed fireworks today, but I’m afraid that the community feel for the night has gone and will continue to fizzle away . . .
Just like a dying firework.