Friday, 2 November 2012

Remember Remember the 5th November gunpowder, treason and plot

    On the 5th of November 1605 Guy Fawkes was arrested while guarding explosives placed beneath the House of Lords. This has made him infamous as a traitor to the crown. Had he attempted to blow up parliament today he may well have been given a medal for services to a grateful nation. His motives, however, were less political than religious, as his target was the protestant King James 1. People lit bonfires to celebrate the foiling of the plot, and a public day of thanksgiving was introduced under the Observation of the  5th November act.

     When I was young, health and safety had little meaning. The world was a dangerous place and people accepted that. Hell the war had only just ended and we'd spent most of our nights in a bomb shelter while our cities were being bombed, what danger could there possibly be from a bonfire and a few  fireworks?
     People lit communal fires in the back alleyways, which separated the rows  of terraced houses and allowed refuse collections, while paint bubbled on back yard gates because of their close proximity to the flames. Mothers made treacle toffee, potato pie, and parkin, a kind of gingerbread made from oats and treacle, while senior citizens sat in front of the fire, as it was warmer outside than  their   own homes. It's a wonder that the elderly survived bonfire night at all, as we often threw cracker-jacks under their chairs and frightened the old dears half to death, before  receiving a clip around the ear for our misdemeanour's.
     My father always purchased a box of  fireworks, as did the neighbours to enhance the experience. There was always a pin-wheel in each box and my father would nail it to the backyard door. With a great fanfare he would light it when everyone was suitably positioned to watch it, but  it either flew off the door and nearly took someone's eye out, or it failed to spin at all and extracted even more paint from the backyard gate until it meekly  fizzled out.
     We'd been collecting firewood for many weeks in the advent to bonfire night, old settees and back yard gates, rotten fencing, branches blown down in the October storms, and all manner of inflammables.  Gangs roamed the area stealing firewood from other people's bonfires, or setting woodpiles alight just for the sheer hell of it. This meant  that armed guards had to be stationed at woodpiles, and skirmishes often ensued.

  Those days are long gone, health and safety has seen to that, but it had to come as people often ended up in hospital, property was damaged, sometimes irrevocably, and some people had their lives changed forever due to burns or the loss of fingers or an eye. Bonfires are mostly of the organised variety these days, and so they should be.  For many years I stood ankle deep in mud with my children, buying hot-dogs, roasted potatoes, and treacle toffee,  from stalls run by  scouting groups to boost their coffers, but bonfires of the organised variety will never be quite so much fun as the bonfires of my youth.

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