There were two periods in my life when bonfire night assumed great importance. The first lasted about seven years until I was fourteen, but it was divided into two distinct halves, which I will explain later. The second period was when my own children were a similar age.
The excitement lasts longer than just the night of November the Fifth; it grows as the bonfire builds. We were never at a loss for things to burn; there were always plenty of sticks, dead leaves and garden rubbish in the autumn. Bonfire Night comes just at the right time of year to get rid of all the garden detritus that has been accumulated through the summer. In the days before the local council provided a wheelie bin to take it away, this pile of debris demanded that we had a bonfire, regardless of the national celebration of Guy Fawkes’ failure to blow up parliament.
There is no denying the effect that the earlier celebration of Hallowe’en had on Bonfire Night; coming just five days later many of the features were simply transferred from the Popish festival to one than even Puritans could tolerate. For example turnip lanterns were still a feature of Bonfire Night when I was a child. These had faces carved on them. just as pumpkins have on Hallowe’en. All Saints Eve was never mentioned in Britain until the 1970s; I could not even tell you when it was before then. When this old Catholic Holy Day was reintroduced, albeit in secular form, it came from America. It is slightly puzzling that the American migrants, who were originally far more strictly Protestant than Britons, should have preserved this Roman Catholic tradition.
When the added excitement of fireworks became a part of Bonfire Night I am not quite sure; the first English firework display I am aware of was on the 27th April 1749. That was held in Green Park, London, to celebrate the signing of Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle the previous year. The only reason I know of that occasion is because of Handel’s famous wind band suite, Music for the Royal Fireworks, which he wrote for that night’s revelry. There were certainly other earlier examples of public firework displays, but fireworks would not have been available for ordinary folk to purchase until the late 19th century.
There are dangers to letting off fireworks, but so long as you are sensible these are manageable. When I was a lad fireworks were much more scary and dangerous. There were cracker-jacks that were deliberately thrown at your feet; these would jump about with an explosion every second or two, and you never knew where the would go next. Bangers were even worse, and were thrown at unsuspecting by-standers by ill-intentioned teenagers. This kind of firework had no visual impact, just a loud noise. Even so, I can remember no injuries from such explosions, but all these devices have been banned long ago. Fireworks only ever came out on Guy Fawkes night. It was just possible to have them on the following Saturday night if the 5th of November fell mid-week. After November the Fifth they disappeared for another year. They were never a part of high days and holidays like birthdays and New Year’s Eve as they are today. Indeed I assumed that it was actually illegal to set them off except on November the Fifth.
For me the home bonfires ended when I was nine, because thereafter I was at boarding school for Guy Fawkes Night. The importance of the celebration itself only increased however. All the boarders would co-operate in building the bonfire, which began weeks ahead. It was no longer a domestic sized affair but a huge mountain of combustible material. We would take a handcart down to the school woods just to gather sticks and branches. The Guy too became a joint effort. When I had made one at home it had always been an effigy of the historical Guy Fawkes. Now at school the Guy represented the particular hate-figure of the day. Who the ‘bad guy’ was I have no idea fifty years later, but as this was 1959 perhaps it was Castro. The celebration of Guy Fawkes Night ended when I entered the Senior School; the occasion was no longer celebrated – it would certainly have been used for smoking surreptitious cigarettes in the dark.
What about poor old Guido Fawkes himself? He and his fellow conspirators had intended to blow up the House of Lords in November 1605, killing King James I and thus clearing the way for the restoration of the Catholic church in England. Guy Fawkes was certainly a terrorist, perhaps the first in the modern sense of the term. The barrels of gunpowder were discovered and the plotters were arrested; the plot was an abject failure. But even if the plot had gone perfectly for Guy Fawkes, it is unimaginable that the Pope would thereafter have been accepted as the head of the English church. Things do not work like that, a fact which potential terrorists would do well to remember. The Catholic IRA attempted a very similar bomb outrage well within living memory in Brighton; then the bomb actually exploded and there was loss of life. Admittedly the objective was more political than religious, but the suicide bombers who carried out the 7/7 attack were motivated largely by religious considerations; what is it that makes bombs and religion go together? Whatever the motives for terrorist outrages, they never achieve what they set out to achieve. Northern Ireland is still a part of the United Kingdom, and if it rejoins Southern Ireland it will not be as result of bombings. I think few people have had their view of Islam improved by the prospect of being blown up. At least we can be glad that Guy Fawkes avoided the gory and slow death of being hanged, drawn and quartered by falling off the scaffold and breaking his neck.
These are troubling thoughts; let us return to the fun of fireworks and Bonfire Night.