As some of you know, I was raised in Liverpool, England, which makes me a “Scouser.” The nickname is derived from the Irish stew (lobscouse, shortened to scouse) that bubbled in most working class homes years ago. It’s still in use today—the term Scouser, not the stew :), and not in the least insulting.
For some reason, quite possibly connected to a beer or two being imbibed in good company, I was recently asked what I missed most about England. I struggled to answer the question. Not because I dislike my native land, but because I’ve lived in the US since 1991, and I’m pretty well assimilated. America is my home. I did not lightly become a US citizen, and provided my health holds out, I hope to live more years in this great country than I did in the land of my birth.
Perhaps because of the time of year, one unique holiday did spring to mind.
Next week, November 5th to be precise, the UK will celebrate Guy Fawkes Night. This tradition dates back to 1605, and in typically brutal English fashion it commemorates the hanging by the neck of one, Guy Fawkes, who was involved in a plot to assassinate King James 1st. For his part, Guy was guarding a significant number of barrels full of gunpowder secreted in an underground chamber below the House of Lords in Westminster (for equivalency think the Capitol Building in Washington DC). Had the gunpowder been ignited, much of the English ruling class would have been wiped out. But someone turned Guy in, and the “Gunpowder Plot” was foiled. To mark the day, Parliament decreed that the people should celebrate by building and lighting bonfires. Never a race of people to miss an opportunity to burn stuff, the English continue to celebrate the anniversary four hundred years later.
In Liverpool, the kids took responsibility for building the community bonfire. Starting in mid-October, combustible pyramids stretching to thirty or forty feet at the tip would be constructed by the local youth in any likely looking large open space. The event served a secondary purpose, providing residents the opportunity to be rid of old scrap wood, or sofas, or furniture—anything that would burn. My friends and I built or borrowed carts, or wheelbarrows--anything that could help haul the booty and pile it high. Tribalism came into play and guards would be posted at the site of the bonfire to prevent a rival group of kids from setting light to the masterpiece of wood and junk before the designated night. This happened on more than one occasion and was the cause of much anguish (and often retribution) for the local kids and even more aggravation for the local fire department.
My family back in England tells me that firework displays nowadays, as with Independence Day over here, are mostly confined to public places and carefully managed, but in my youth, this was a local event. I would construct a “Guy,” an effigy of the perpetrator from the 1600s, from an old shirt or sweater attached to an old pair of trousers, all stuffed with newspaper and topped with a hat and mask. Sitting next to my amateurish dummy on the sidewalk (pavement in English :) ) of the local high street a week or so before Guy Fawkes night with a begging-hat, I’d collect money from passers-by shouting: “Penny for the Guy?” With the cash I bought fireworks—or in my case, Bangers (firecrackers in American).
On November 5th, as darkness fell, all over Britain, huge bonfires were lit. Fireworks crackled and flared and filled the sky with light and joy. Foggy, autumnal air steamed my breath. The smell of burned sulfur from the fireworks (sulphur in English) stung my nose and to this day triggers a racing heart. My Guy, along with dozens of others, was cast into the bonfire’s flames and consumed.
At Bonfire Night parties, for those lucky enough to be invited, kids ducked for apples in a water-filled bucket, or took impossibly large bites from toffee-apples, which smeared their soot-stained cheeks with stick red treacle.
Yes, I do miss Bonfire Night.
Pete's latest book, Love Poison, is available now from Amazon US (paper or ebook) and Amazon UK (paper or ebook).