Remember, Remember...

Memories of Bonfire Night and Halloween.

Bonfire Night/Halloween is without doubt my favourite time of year. The autumn nights, the evening chill, the approach of winter, the palpable sense of excitement in the air. This might be due to some primal stirring of stags bellowing, goblins kicking around orange leaves to make them whirl in the street and the rise of the dragon’s breath (mist, if you prefer) but it could just be memories of the childish anticipation of fireworks going bang and ghosts going boo.

After chatting to friends and family about childhood Bonfire Nights and realising my memories were now history this is a rambling delve into memory and Firework Night beginning with a bit of ‘how my mind works’:

Bo, the odd creature in Fries, will get his own post at some point on the folklore characters that are his relatives but one thing I had never really thought about was my own picture of what Bo looks like. And then I was given a postcard of Wonk.

I’d forgotten all about Wonk, a ladybird book character written by Muriel Levy. Wonk is a marsupial creature more koala than the wombat Lucy thinks Bo looks like (although Bo isn’t a wombat nor, as he protests, is he “any sort of bat”). My internal picture of Bo, like Lucy's, doesn’t really look like Wonk and their character is different but I’m pretty sure the childish enjoyment I had of the exploits of a marsupial who liked eating and sleeping leaked into some of how I see Bo.

The Wonk book I had as a child was called Fireworks and brings me onto my remembering and misremembering of the week from Halloween to Firework Night.

My childhood Halloween was mostly an at home thing, some apple bobbing and a ghoulish tea (green mash, dead man’s fingers, eyeballs and blood – sausages, mash and peas with ketchup). A few kids came trick or treating (no adult supervision) and it was definitely an either/or, if there were no treats forthcoming then there would likely be a trick – egging, knock & run and other childhood forms of revenge. When I was a bit older and went out we mostly concentrated on the tricking, the same might happen any time of year as an option to other pursuits like football or biking round but it was acknowledged this was the night for mischief. My partner remembers making punky lanterns out of swede and putting them outside (we still do) which is like carving a pumpkin but harder (and creepier in my opinion). Talking to others there were games at youth clubs and I had thought we played Nelson is Dead (blindfolded you are presented with things that are Nelson’s eye or his brains etc) but my Sister is certain this was a general party thing we played at Christmas. A generation back my parents had no trick or treating but someone, a grandparent, might set up a bowl or string for bobbing apples and sing songs like ‘Roger is dead and lies in his grave’.

Whereas Halloween was a nodding acquaintance Bonfire/Firework night to my parents as children, as to myself as a child, was the biggy when family and friends would get together, sometimes with groups or individuals you would only see at this time of year. For my parents and my generation the celebration was substantially the same. Bonfires built in family gardens and public areas, fights and rivalries between kids in neighbouring areas trying to set light to or steal bonfire material from each other’s bonfires, with guards having to be kept. The public bonfires on the night having a greater sense of danger with bangers and squibs being thrown around. My Mother recalls the bonfire on the local green being a regular and literal battleground as police tried to prevent and clear it versus the youths and adults determined to keep the tradition going. (Not just the tradition of bonfire – disorder and fighting authority has been a constant characteristic of this night for 350 years)

Bonfire night and Firework night seem to be interchangeably the most common name but I think there is possibly less bonfire on bonfire night than there once was. On the firework side the easy access to fireworks was a dangerous delight, buying bangers and mini rockets from shops as a kid and setting them off in the streets, having them randomly thrown at all and sundry or used for blowing up toys in the weeks leading to bonfire night.

My partner knew 4th November as mischief night and there are stories of my East Anglian uncle and friends rolling lit bins and barrels down the local hill either then or at Halloween and I’m sure some folklorists could find a suitable parallel but it seems it was mostly done for fun and mischief. It does seem reminiscent of the classic fire barrel running at Devonshire’s Ottery St Mary although, interestingly, an anecdote from rural North Devon in the 1960s is that the only celebration there was a night of skittles in the pub.

Another folklore field day could likely be had in the demarcation within guy building: the body of our childhood guys was made from my Mum’s tights stuffed with paper and the clothes it was dressed in were my Dad’s worn out work clothes. I couldn’t actually remember any ‘penny for the guy’ happening and I think it does seem to be one of those traditions that has ended in my lifetime but my memory might be inaccurate. Friends in my street set up ‘penny for guys’ outside when I was a child and kids were still at it in town up to at least 1999.

As for that Wonk book from my childhood, in it the fireworks go off Whizz, Bang, Crack, Zoom, Weee, Crackle, Snap, Pop, Squeee.. or at least we thought they did. My Sister recently found the book and reading it again realised it just went Whizz, Bang. The rest had been added by my Dad when he read it aloud. So not all my incorrect recollections are down to memory but are sometimes down to the childish excitement brought on by Bonfires, darkening nights and Fireworks.

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