I mentioned recently that when I was younger, way back in the 1950s, we'd barely heard of Halloween. A reader commented that down in darkest Devon they had been in the habit of carving out large turnips to make jack-o-lanterns and I remember reading that in Somerset they celebrated Punky Night at this time of year which involved going from door to door demanding sweets and doing something very akin to trick-or treating. But in East Anglia - nothing.
Even if there had been a celebration of Halloween, recorded on calendars and mentioned on the radio, we'd have been too busy to join in. From the last week or so of October we had other things on our minds.
Fireworks were appearing in the village shop. These were not the super-duper pyrotechnical whizz-bangs of today but modest little cardboard tubes with innocent names like Golden Rain, Roman Candle, Catherine Wheels and Jumping Jacks. Then there were rockets, which simply fizzed up into the air and died quietly in a shower of sparks, penny Bangers and of course Sparklers. These could all be bought for modest amounts of pocket-money and didn't require a second mortgage like some of the display fireworks sold today.
You weren't supposed to buy them when you were six of course and had to persuade parents to get them for you. Some boys at school though used to go and visit old Mr Gundlestone, a shop-keeper blissfully unaware of rules and regulations, health and safety, or even food-hygiene come to that.
Then there was the business of building a bonfire. Small boys scoured the gardens and sheds to find anything which might be remotely considered flammable - wet branches, still green hedge cuttings, soggy cardboard boxes - and pile them up in a corner of the garden, till father came home from work and pointed out that it would probably set fire to next-door's pig sties if you left it there, so it would all have to be moved next morning.
More constructive endeavour was required to make the Guy. Here's how you do it:
- Collect together as many of Dad's worn out work clothes as possible.
- Tie up the ends of the legs and arms with baler twine.
- Stuff with newspaper or straw.
- Try to join up the legs and the torso.
- Get Dad to do it when he comes home.
- Make a head from an old feed-sack.
- Ask Dad if he'd got any old wellington boots for the feet. He always had - I think he must have put them aside specially.
The end result, due to the provenance of its attire, always bore a striking resemblance to my father but we called it "the Guy" nevertheless. We occasionally had a go at collecting "a penny for the Guy" and sometimes got a few pence from a visiting uncle, but I never remember us making a nuisance of ourselves out on the street.
Then came the big day. Morning school would be spent learning about who Guy Fawkes was and hearing the story of the attempted gunpowder plot. Then in the afternoon we would usually make a painting of fireworks or bonfires. Sometimes we would dry our paintings in front of the iron pot-bellied stove in the corner of the classroom, often the evening's events would be anticipated by someone "accidentally" setting fire to their work of art. Then we all had to go and sit down till the end of school.
In the evening everyone had a bonfire and fireworks in their garden. We'd often be joined by young men who worked with Dad on the farm. They'd usually contribute a box of fireworks, often more expensive ones than my parents could afford, and sometimes brought a few bottles of beer with them as well. There was always laughter around these lads, Mick, Francis and Graham, they'd tease us and make jokes till we couldn't stop giggling.
The fireworks would be lit, one by one, by my father while we all stood at a safe distance, Oo-ing and Ah-ing at the modest display. Rockets were fired from milk bottles and Catherine wheels were pinned to the post that held the clothes-line. All too soon the firework box was empty. Then Mick would say, "I'll see if I can find any more" and would return within seconds bearing the biggest rocket of the night!
As the fire was dying down my mother would produce "Taters-in-their-jackets" and we all ate hungrily, butter dripping down our chins, before us children were put to bed, tired but happy.
Next morning we sought to wring the last vestiges of excitement out of the celebration by kicking around in the still warm ashes of the bonfire to see if we could find anything which had survived the blaze, usually an old bolt or a handful of bent nails. Then we made a thorough search of the area to see if we could find the scorched wooden sticks from spent rockets - all that was left till next year.
(images borrowed from the internet)