With bonfire night fast approaching and with the National Press debating how childhood is far less adventurous than it used to be, a couple of weeks ago I was fascinated to watch a video of little boys playing with fireworks and I found myself saying, so what! It was pretty tame compared with what the boys in our neighbourhood used to get up to.
Now before I go any further, I’m not denying that some horrific accidents occur due to careless handling of fireworks, but I can only say in my defence that throughout my childhood, after I married and had children and when I gained a brother in law who was an accident waiting to happen when he was around fireworks, no-one ever got hurt; not even slightly singed. So I guess I come out on the side of those who say we’re protecting our children to their detriment.
We were a hard up neighbourhood. Pocket money was a rarity for most of the kids, but if we were lucky enough to get any, it was usually three pence a week. [A thruppeny joey to those who remember] and we had to start saving straight after the summer holidays if we wanted fireworks.
We could get penny bangers, but being a girl I preferred pretty ones and a Volcanic Eruption that lasted for about five seconds, or the smallest Roman Candle cost a whole week’s pocket money, so it was slow going adding to the tin in the cupboard under the stairs where our fireworks were stored. Of course dad could always be relied on to bring home a couple of expensive rockets right on firework night, and mum treated us to a packet a sparklers but it was down to my sister and I to provide the rest of the entertainment.
For the boys who came from really hard up families, a Guy Fawkes was the main source of income. Planned weeks before, with trousers and coats scrounged from long suffering relations; carefully stuffed with all sorts of combustibles and sporting a paper mache mask in the likeness of Guy Fawkes, the moment nights began drawing in he was pushed around the town in a rickety pushchair to their cries of, ‘Penny for the Guy’. The nearer the day the more competition for the best pitch, and on payday the boys didn’t wait to have their tea but rushed straight out in order to catch workers hurrying home through the foggy, frosty streets.
We were lucky in our street because we had a good sized open space on the Old Buildings, so not only were the boys busy collecting money for fireworks with their guys, but they also organised teams to go around on the scrounge for anything that burned.
It was a good time to have a turn out, and three piece suites and old sideboards were welcome additions as the weeks passed. Finally the pile was so high that the boys mounted a guard because we were the only street around to have a fire of that size and jealousy from neighbouring gangs grew in proportion to the bonfire, which meant outbreaks of arson if our boys didn’t keep an eye on it.
On the night itself, we fidgeted and fussed waiting for dad to come home from work and always swore he took longer to eat his tea just to be awkward. Then we’d have to wait while he pulled the dustbin into the middle of the garden path and stuffed it full of newspapers and scraps of wood. I suppose memories are made of repeated words and actions, which is why as I look at my plastic bins I think back to our galvanized dustbin, and all the times my dad said,’ that’s killed the germs for another year then Dora.’
Once the bin was well alight, he’d fetch the tin of fireworks and set them off. His big rockets were always the crowning moment, which is when Mum would start to usher us toward the back door as he positioned them in a milk bottle and lit the blue touch paper. It was always a hairy moment, because we were surrounded by houses, so they had to take off almost vertically and she never trusted him to get it right.
Our little display always seemed to be over too quickly, but the evening wasn’t over. At seven thirty sharp, up and down the street front doors opened, and people from all around began to stand at their front doors or gather on the waste ground, while the guy was ceremoniously perched on the top of the bonfire and lighted tapers thrust all around the base. Once the flames had taken and the guy was engulfed in flames, it was time for the boys to let rip. Chucking jumping jacks under the feet of people who were standing around the bonfire and earmarking a large galvanised dustbin used to collect food scraps for the pigs across the street, they would tie half a dozen bangers together, light one of the fuses, chuck the bundle in the bin, quickly ram the lid down and run.
The blast used to shoot the lid way into the air, along with whatever food was in it at the time. As the lid crashed to the ground, it would bring out the old lady who lived in the nearest house. But even she’d be laughing while she shook her fists at them and swore she’d tell their parents.
As we grew older and were allowed to stay out later, my friends and I would scream and run as the boys let off rockets horizontally on the road. My fondest memory though, is the whole street roaring with laughter when someone stood too near the bonfire and the bottom of his trousers began to smoulder and then burst into flames. We thought it was screamingly funny as he jumped around and beat the flames out. And he must have thought so too, because once he was out he just stood further back and carried on watching.
Later, after I was reluctantly tucked up in bed, I’d listen to the bangs and whooshes still coming from outside, and wait with baited breath for the final triumphant clang as the dustbin lid took its final journey of the year.