Friday, 7 November 2008
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot
‘Remember, remember the 5th of December, gunpower, treason and plot’ – so sang my silly songbird six year old as we left school in the gloaming. ‘I think you mean ‘November’’ I said, helpfully, squeezing her warm little hand. Then, less helpfully, I completely couldn’t remember the rest of the ditty, and neither could she. Oh well, nice try. Got us in the spirit, at least, and took me back to my childhood Bonfire Nights….
How exciting they seemed then. Full of drama and horror when I was little: the doom-laden voice of the school teacher warning us of the dangers of fireworks ringing in my ears as, nervously, I watched my father stomp round the garden lighting the blue touch paper and sort of standing back; then going forward again because it hadn’t lit, my eyes widening at the impending tragedy of my father losing an arm or an eye as the wretched little firework suddenly decided to take off in the damp November air and he leapt back in the nick of time with a curse. Ah yes, those were the days: all those dire warnings of pets needing to be kept in, entreaties for us all to take care ‘this Bonfire night’. It was a night filled with excitement and alarm and a smell up my nostrils like exploded caps (remember those? – those lines of little black dots on a long thin strip of bluey-green paper which you put in a ‘gun’ which had a trigger which slammed down on them to make them go bang? Good grief, what would Health and Safety think of those, eh? Or does someone still sell them somewhere secretly under cover of darkness…?).
As I grew up, we progressed from the back garden to organised events dotted around West Sussex. There were torch parades and baked potatoes and big bonfires and the excuse to meet up with your mates and hang out on a school night: because in those days Bonfire Night was the 5th of November. Not the weekend before, nor the weekend after, nor two weeks either side. No. It was on the night that history was made. I used to get so mad in London, before we moved up here, to have desultory fireworks (or rather just loud bangers) going off for weeks before the 5th. It completely ruined it, like having Christmas decorations in the shops in October. It just renders the whole thing meaningless and makes you tire of it rather than one special night to look forward to once a year. That is the point of any remembrance ceremony isn’t it, to have it on the date that whatever it was actually happened?
Anyway, the good people of my local town do actually have Bonfire Night on Bonfire Night, for which they are to be applauded. They build a bonfire on the market place (not large) right outside the Co-Op, the Post Office, the Betting Shop, the take-away and two pubs (with two more 20 feet away across the high street) and put on a generous 45 minutes of fireworks, during which increasing numbers of people teeter onto the pavements from the hostelries and go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ before going back in for another pint (or three). It’s a wonder there are no charred bodies on the glowing embers the next day, frankly, as tipsy home-goers stagger past the flames in the small hours. It would certainly put a whole new spin on burning the Guy. A couple of years back apparently someone pitched up with an old three piece suite which they duly chucked on the flames. And why not? Saved a trip to the dump at least.
Yet despite the enticements of Bonfire and Booze on my own high street, I decided to stay local. Very local. Like my own back garden. Like the days of old. The village used to have its own bonfire and ‘a jolly good do’ (according to Henri) in the car park before half of it was unceremoniously built on. I think we should bring it back as a tradition, but in the meantime, my garden will do. So we built a bonfire, my friend and I, chatting the while as we wheeled barrel loads of branches and old door frames up the garden path to the top of the garden. We then dropped down into dingly dell (newly cleared of scrub and gnarled old rhododendron) and formed our wigwam. The sheep were wandering on the hills beyond and golden beech leaves dropped silently from above, dancing their way gently and unselfconsciously to the ground. The sky was dull and grey and all was still and waiting. It was very November and a delightful hour of companionable work.
The friend returned with her family and a very smartly turned out Guy just short of seven. N had amazed me by walking through the door at 5.30pm, despite being in the middle of a spectacular work crisis (what’s new?), only to get in my way making toast and things as he’d not had lunch while I was trying to be organised getting food and drink prepared so that, for once, Holy Cow, I would be ready when guests arrived. I was ready, but N was not. No, he had to go on an emergency conference call just as they walked through the door. Vile words exploded from my mouth like Roman Candles. So we sat and drank our mulled cider in the kitchen till we could wait no more and then stomped up the garden without him. Unfortunately my friend’s husband is less of a pyrotechnic than my own and, as friend and I had crucially forgotten to put cardboard at the heart of our marvellous wigwam, our efforts to light it were wasted. Fire lighters were pathetically placed on dry foliage; fuel was sprayed onto naked flames with much alarm all round and chitterings and mutterings from the children all clearly heavily steeped in teacherly warnings. The cat, who’d been let out absent mindedly, was much worried about. G imagined her death by firework. Tears were fought back. I knew she’d be up a tree somewhere, safe as houses. The children played in the darkness, their torches flashing through the foliage. We drank tepid soup under the branches of an old yew and tried to imagine the fire burning brightly. Then suddenly and unexpectedly the cavalry arrived. A call from the darkness ‘How’s the bonfire?’ The Accountant, fresh from numeric battle, came to save us from chilly soup and chilly hands. He tweaked logs, threw on more charcoal fuel, smashed down the wigwam and promised flames. Guy’s head caught fire and dropped off dramatically in a decapitated sort of way, his body resolutely unburned. But it was a start. So we ate our cold hot dogs and turned our thoughts to fireworks. The town’s were now long finished, and we had the night sky to ourselves. It was a splendid display in the way only garden fireworks can be. Giggling from the only two Brave Girls and cries of ‘pathetic’ as each flimsy firework threw it’s pink and green best at us. The small rockets shot off at dangerous angles; the large ones with their swaggering bangs and mushroom of sparkles, caused simultaneous whoops and whimpers from the Brave and the Not So Brave. Parkin was eaten, washed down with more mulled cider. The show must go on. Ears were covered, tears were wiped away. The little huddle of spectators was enveloped in a sweet scented cloud of smoke as the last rocket scattered golden flecks into the night sky with a contented boom. It was a scene straight out of my childhood, but this time it was my husband lighting the blue touch paper, not my father. The baton has been passed to the next generation. Or should I say, the matchstick.
We made our way back to the wood and the now splendid fire. We lit sparklers and wrote our names in the air, the part of the evening everyone loves, the most innocent bit of all. Once they were spent and black, we bathed in the glow of the bonfire for a few minutes more before reluctantly gathering up children and gloves, torches and lanterns and made our way back down the garden to the house, its warmly lit windows drawing us in from the darkness outside.
‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
The gunpower, treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder and treason
Should ever be forgot….’
Bonfire Night, 5th November 2008
Click on the links below to find the recipes I used:-
Mulled Apple Juice