Today, Monday 5th November is Guy Fawkes Night in the UK, when we Brits enjoy celebrating the only non-religious “festival” in the British calendar. Guy Fawkes and his gang of fellow conspirators tried to blow up King James the First and the English Parliament and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne, an event known as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Fawkes was thankfully caught in time, tried for treason and sentenced to execution. When being led across the scaffold to where he was to be hanged, he leaped off the platform to his death, his neck broken. (Link to full history and more info.)
To mark the saving of the king and Parliament and the demise of this traitor, we hold parties where we light bonfires and set off fireworks, to represent the explosions and destruction that would have happened had Fawkes succeeded. These bonfire parties range from a simple family gathering in the garden to large public, organised displays – a more common event nowadays for health and safety reasons.
As a child, Bonfire Night was the second highlight of the year (Christmas being the first). Where we lived in London, the houses on the other side of the narrow street were built around a large square of grass where we kids played football and games during the summer. In the weeks leading up to the 5th, adults and children would gather wood and rubbish, old furniture and unwanted items to use to build a huge bonfire in the middle of the square. Over the weeks, this grew steadily larger and higher. The week leading up to the great night, we children would make a Guy, using old clothes stuffed with straw, a mask for a face, and often an old cap or hat to create an effigy of Fawkes. The Guy would be seated into a pushchair or go-cart and wheeled around the streets or placed outside a shop with us kids rattling a tin to beg “A penny for the Guy please, mister?” Most adults would throw money into the tin willingly as they, too, had done the same thing when they were small. With our takings, we would buy sparklers and bangers from the local sweetshop. That tradition has now been stopped, the powers that be deeming it a form of begging and thus banned by British law, as is the sale of fireworks to minors, and rightly so, as many accidents have happened in the past.
During the day of the 5th, the Guy was ceremoniously placed on top of the bonfire by someone’s dad. Once it was dark, all the adults and children from the streets joined in, the bonfire lit, the mothers cooking potatoes in their jackets and roasting chestnuts in the bonfire, mugs of hot soup or oxo or in the case of adults, alcohol drunk, dads in charge of setting of the fireworks they had all clubbed together to buy, and us kids waving our lit sparklers in our gloved hands and watching in awe at the colourful firework display, and covering our ears when the bangers went off. When the Guy finally caught fire and went up in flames, everyone would cheer, the adults enjoying it just as much as us kids.
Being a November night, it was always cold, usually damp and foggy and it often rained but we kids didn’t care, we loved every moment of it. We lived literally next door to Heathrow Airport, beneath the main flight path and a mile from touchdown. In those days, there were still night-time flights into the airport. I often wished I could be on one of those planes as it flew over London on Bonfire Night and witness the wonderful displays going on below.
And as the TV advert used to sing out “Light up the sky with Standard Fireworks!