The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
(English Folk Verse, c 1870)
When we lived in America, the ushering in of November brought with it a twinge of sadness for me, as I was unable to share with my children one of the most important nights of the year which I celebrated as a child growing up in England, a night steeped in centuries-long tradition: the night of November 5th, otherwise known as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night.
For those of you who might not know what this is all about, the activities which will take place this very night up and down this wonderful isle of ours are held in celebration of a failed (Catholic) gunpowder plot to blow up (Protestant) King James I and the Houses of Parliament.
It was Guy Fawkes’ misfortune to be caught red-handed, on the night of 4th November, 1605, in the cellars below the House of Lords with a rather incriminating pile of dynamite. This dynamite was planted directly beneath where the King was due to sit to preside over the opening of parliament the next day.
For his treasonous sins, Guy Fawkes was tortured for two days until he finally signed a confession, whereupon his sentence was to be hung, drawn and quartered. This meant that he was to be hung by his neck within an inch of his life, cut down while still alive, his testicles cut off and stomach ripped open, spilling his guts in front of his own eyes before being beheaded and cut into four parts, all of which would be sent to the four corners of the Kingdom and put on display as a warning, lest others should dare try the same thing.
We are a bloody lot really.
But the good news for poor Mr. Fawkes is that he managed to jump from the gallows with the rope around his neck, making sure that he was already dead and so was spared what would have been the most agonising of deaths.
This then is why, every 5th of November, we Brits burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes on top of a bonfire (when I was growing up this would be in our own back garden and built with whatever we could find to burn) while setting off fireworks.
The preparations started several days beforehand. I will always remember the fun my brother and I had as we gathered up piles of autumn leaves from the ground and stuffed them into an old pair of my dad’s trousers and one of his shirts, tying up the legs and sleeves with string and finishing off with a ‘head’ made out of an old pair of tights stuffed with newspaper.
On the day itself, Dad would get things ready by putting out milk bottles from which to launch the rockets and banging nails into pieces of wood for the Catherine Wheels (which would usually fall off half-way through their spinning).
All day long the excitement would build and at last the skies would grow dark, bringing with it November’s bitter chill. Soon enough we would be warmed through as we stood near the roaring bonfire, drinking tomato soup out of mugs and eating jacket potatoes that had been
charred baked in the bonfire and all the while watching with childlike wonderment, ‘oohhing’ and ‘ahhing’ at the explosions of colour as the fireworks lit up the sky above.
These were my Bonfire Nights and I didn’t think that I would ever get to share them with my children, but life has a strange way of turning the tables on us in the most surprising of ways.
I was not to know then that my marriage would end and that I would return to the UK in 2003 with my two younger children, then fourteen and eleven. They had to start a brand new school where they didn’t know anybody.
Soon after, thank goodness, my son was befriended by a boy and his group of friends and as Bonfire Night approached my son was very excited to tell me that he had been invited to his friend’s house for the festivities. Not only that, but his friend’s parents, knowing that it was just the three of us (my older son was away at University) had also, very kindly, invited my daughter and I.
The only problem was that they lived in a rural village some miles away from the town where we lived and I had no idea how to get to their house. My son had been there to stay several times, however, and was confident that he knew the way. I asked him to get directions from his friend anyway, just in case.
Bonfire Night arrived and we piled excitedly into the car. I knew how to get to the village and so far so good. Then began the fun. I got to the village alright but drove right through it, ending up as quickly as you can say ‘Roman Candle’ in deep, dark Wiltshire countryside on an isolated, rural road. I pulled over, stopped the car and turned on the inside light, asking my son for the directions.
What he produced was a tiny scrap of paper upon which he had drawn a road. In the middle of the road he had also drawn a bridge and a house at one end. That was it.
You have to also bear in mind that by then I had been living in the UK for only three months having lived (and driven) in California for the previous seventeen years. Although I had grown up in the countryside and so had learnt to drive on narrow country roads, it had been many years since I had done this.
had also never been to this part of the world before in my life, so at this point I was totally reliant upon my son to get us to his friend’s house. It was pitch black outside, the moon hidden by ominous looking clouds, and my sense of direction was shot to pieces.
My dear son, telling me to calm down (don’t you love it when your kids tell you to calm down) promised to get us there. I turned around and found our way back to the village and by no small miracle we found ‘that bridge’. Driving over it we followed the road which became narrower and narrower and before you knew it, we were in the middle of a wood.
Driving over a cattle grid was the last straw and I threatened to turn round, convinced that we were horribly lost. My son insisted that no, this was right and to keep going. My patience was growing very thin, but I held on to my faith in him and we continued on, going deeper and deeper into the dark, eerie woods. For all I knew, we were in the middle of a scene fresh out of The Blaire Witch Project.
About to give up and turn back, suddenly we came to a clearing. “This is it! Keep going!” urged my son. The relief in his voice was not lost on me. So I did, and there, dear reader, just beyond the clearing we saw it, a huge bonfire, burning like a beacon in the night guiding us to our destination and welcoming us to this magical retreat in the middle of the English countryside.
When we were friendless and strangers in our own ‘home’, people who didn’t know us took us in and welcomed us. I am eternally thankful for the kindness and hospitality of these wonderful folk.
This was the beginning of our new life back in England and I couldn’t think of a better way to start it than by sitting on hay bales around a bonfire, sipping hot cocoa while watching a magnificent firework display somewhere in the middle of a field in the wilds of Wiltshire. I got to share a precious tradition from my childhood with my own children after all.
Oh, and if you were wondering? My son and the boy who befriended him eleven years ago? They are best friends to this very day.
Remember, remember, the 5th of November… Happy Bonfire Night 🙂