Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Remember when Bonfire Night was a magical adventure for us?
It is over. Another Halloween and Fireworks Fortnight is dished and done. The descent into the dark days down to Christmas begins.
The way common culture has changed in my own lifetime is marked. Halloween, once a distinctly quieter affair, is now the third most commercial festival after Easter and Christmas.
Bonfire Night, which once loomed large for British children, seems a duller affair than it was.
Guy Fawkes Night is no longer held exclusively on November 5th. It seems to take place on any night from late October to almost mid November. Children are no longer allowed anywhere near the fire, of course. Fireworks, on the other hand, and the letting of them off, seem increasingly unregulated.
Bonfire Night once belonged to children. In the early 1960s, the building of a bonfire, at least where I grew up, was a thing almost entirely in our charge. Around late September, a group of kids would decide it was time to start organising. Old grudges were put aside as older lads assumed leadership, marshalling younger children as the foraging began.
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It required long spars and broken branches to make a frame. Early attempts often resulted in comical failures. Failure being the manure of success, however, once the frame was stable, the project was rolling.
Far from interfering with us, adults positively encouraged us. On whatever playing field or recreation ground we’d been allowed to build, adults from nearby houses would shout to us: “I’ve got some old roofing batons you can have.” Or, “If you go and see old Mrs Jones, she has some broken chairs you can take away.”
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So, with that peculiar seriousness which boys will sometimes adopt when engaged in a Work of Great Importance, such as the building of a large bonfire, we’d set to it.
Over ensuing weeks the bonfire grew. If it had begun life as September’s anorexic wigwam, by mid-October it had grown in both height and girth. Ruthless requisitioning was conducted. Sweeps of the neighbourhood left garages, sheds, gardens and wasteland cleared of anything combustible. It was as if a marauding army had stripped the estate. When autumn half-term arrived, things became even more intense. Clothes and stuffing for the Guy were found and the firework fund was started.
More pressing, however, was that we’d have to guard our bonfire from sabotage. One year, when I was living in the north of England, matters became unexpectedly dramatic. We’d built our bonfire on a recreation ground separated from a railway embankment by tall wire fencing. Late one afternoon, with only two of us around, three boys from a rival patch appeared on the embankment and to our shock began firing flaming arrows at our bonfire. It was ingenious, we had to give them that. They were big lads and they looked rough.
The two of us ran around, pulling the crudely-made flaming arrows off the bonfire. As others of our gang came running, the invaders retreated back along the railway line. A few of us pursued them, running down the road out of our estate to head them off. When we arrived on their patch, however, there was a bigger gang waiting. Now it was our turn to run.
It was decided, thereafter, that for the rest of half-term holiday someone should always guard the bonfire. Naturally, any suggestion that one of us should sleep in it was vetoed by a passing parent with dreadful tales about the burnt children of yesteryear.
In its final days the bonfire was fattened further. The dwindling daylight hours between school finishing and being called in for tea became ever more precious. What we junior project managers didn’t realise at this time was that the really important stuff wasn’t anything to do with the burning of the bonfire. It had all been to do with the making of it.
We’d been so engrossed in our work for a month - an epoch to an 11-year-old - that we hadn’t even noticed the fun we’d had.
It wasn’t until the day afterwards, as we trailed out to poke disconsolately at the still-hot embers, that we experienced that peculiar childhood weltschmerz: the sense of a great time having passed.
A few scorched cardboard tubes were all that remained of the Volcanos and Golden Rains which had flared so briefly.
Times change. Modern children no longer have the opportunity to absorb themselves in such a fashion. I need not enlarge upon the reasons why. But it does seem a shame. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.