“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun”
As a ten year old South Londoner in 1950, autumn was always my favourite time of year, especially October and November. Autumn fruits on the classroom’s Nature Table, going down to Tooting Bec Common and throwing lumps of wood up at the Horse Chestnut trees to knock down conkers then stringing them and soaking them in brine, ready for the playground gladiatorial contests. Kicking up the leaves on the walk back from school. Above all the anticipation of Bonfire night and fireworks on November 5th, then the run down to the excitement of Christmas
The last week of October was a half term holiday. The immediate task was making the guy by stuffing some old clothes with newspaper topping up with a scrunched up ball fronted with a paper mask and the whole crowned with an old hat begged borrowed or stolen from someone’s aunt. Then down to Streatham High Road to dump him on the pavement and call out “Penny for the guy” to passing adults.
The theory was that we could use any money collected to buy fireworks but there was never really enough donated – indeed some sniffy grownups would condemn it as “begging” but we didn’t care. As ten years old adults were an alien breed who rarely impinged on our world unless stirred up, rather like wasps, by some innocent act that threatened to disrupt their mysterious world.
Fireworks, of course, were a major subject of discussion – not the “pretty ones” so beloved of mums, aunts and sisters, but the “bangers”. We compared notes on which brand was the most explosive and we tested them in back alleys and secret hideaways. I don’t know if there were restrictions on selling them to youngsters but we were never refused by any shopkeeper.
The greatest excitement was making our own bangers. Would you believe it? We went down to Boots in Streatham and bought sulphur and potassium nitrate. Actually we asked for ‘saltpetre’, and the helpful chemist told us its proper name. He even told us the quantities to use, although he did warn us to take care. He didn’t sell charcoal, but told us to go to an art shop further up the road. Not much health & safety then.
So we got our charcoal from the art shop which we then ground down to black dust; one third of each ingredient and we had our gunpowder! Pack it into a cylinder of cardboard or several layers of paper and tie at both ends with string so it looked like a sausage. Then off to the model shop to buy some jetex fuse (normally used to ignite the engines of model aeroplanes and sold in coils of wick in small round tins). Insert the small length of wick into the end of the sausage, stand clear and await the explosion.
We used them packed into the ground to make small craters or put them in milk bottles or tin cans (Lyles Golden Syrup were the best). Fortunately we were all fairly bright so knew enough to move far away, but I am sure slower witted boys could risk some nasty injuries.
Out all day, at someone’s house or down on the common, as long as we were home for lunch or tea parents didn’t seem to worry. The streets and commons and parks were teeming with young boys and girls, running free, maybe irritating adults who would shout and we would run away – but the idea of staying at home all day, being guarded by parents and checked on every half hour? Never..
Another time, another age. Were there paedophiles lurking around waiting to rape us or sell us into slavery? Maybe and I suppose it did happen. But not much was reported and teachers and parents appeared fairly sanguine. Being outside, of course, did make us streetwise and we seemed to have an internal radar which could distinguish between the well meaning helpful adult and one who was … a little weird
In 1950, 0f course, WW2 (the “war”) was still very much part of family discourse. Fathers and uncles reminisced about their experiences, mums and aunts would talk about the blitz and air raid sirens. There were still some “bomb dumps”, sites where buildings had been damaged by bombs and not yet cleared (glorious adult free playgrounds for us) and “rationing” of sweets, sugar and meat. Parents talked incessantly of “before the war” when you could supposedly buy anything you wanted when you wanted but such a cornucopia meant little to us because it was beyond our experience. We made our own lives with what we had.ever
Now, of course, you never see kids with a guy in the street – in fact the whole idea of burning Guy Fawkes on a bonfire is probably seen as being in bad taste and maybe even considered a hate crime. Yet we were quite adamant.
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!”
We believed we were celebrating the defeat of a terrorist plot to destroy king and parliament and impose the rule of Spain and the Inquisition – to us an escape from tyranny similar to 1945 when we had street parties to rejoice in the defeat of another danger (indeed, well into the late 40s many guys possesed a Hitler moustache). Still my mum did remind us that Fawkes, though heavily tortured, had never sneaked on his co-conspirators so in some peculiarly English way we also admired his bravery because, like boys all over, we never liked snitches.
Now the guys have gone, the fireworks are all safely organised, the parks and commons empty. Instead we have the ghastly American import of Halloween, heavily pimped by the retail trade selling themed paraphernalia and an excuse to blackmail fearful pensioners into treating to avoid tricking. Odd, is it not, that we have substituted the remembrance of a true historical event with the mythological detritus of the occult – a sign of the times?
Maybe being a ten year old in South London in 1950 wasn’t a bad place to be…