Posted in Events, Personal life

Of Jealous Guys and Ambitious Bonfires

(This is my November column for the Hawkesbury Parish News, published just before the annual village Bonfire Night celebrations)

Cover of the Ladybird book entitled James I and the Gunpowder Plot
All you need to know about Guy Fawkes in child-friendly detail (image: Amazon UK)

I’m old enough to remember not only the time when “Penny for the Guy” was a common cry at this time of year, but when a penny would be enough to buy something.

You could get four fruit salad sweets or a chocolate mouse for a penny. Or for just a few pennies, you could buy the cheapest fireworks from our local Post Office. My favourite was a box of coloured matches, while naughty boys preferred bangers or jumping jacks. Children were allowed to buy them, and we did. These days we may complain that health and safety regulations have gone mad, but looking back, you can see why we needed to invent them.

My favourite childhood memory of Fireworks Night was our family party. Raised in London suburbia, I was lucky enough to live in a house on the corner of the street, with a wrap-around garden big enough to host a decent bonfire without torching either the guests or the neighbours. That’s something you couldn’t do in most modern estate houses.

Each year our guy got sent on his way atop a pile of crumpled newspaper and sticks. In that simpler age, it didn’t occur to us to build a bonfire shaped like anything other than a bonfire.

Not so now we live in Hawkesbury, where the village bonfire is always a spectacular structure: Tower Bridge last year, complete with London bus. What shape will this year’s be? Whatever it is, if the old guys we used to make could see it, they’d be flabbergasted. Some guys have all the luck, they might say.

Picture of giant model of train in bonfire
The answer: Hawkesbury’s 2016 Bonfire Night set fire to the Hogwarts Express (Check out the two people standing to the left of the picture for an idea of the giant scale of the train!) Photo by Andy Musty
Posted in Events, Family, Personal life, Writing

Guys and Trolls – My November Column for the Tetbury Advertiser

Cover the November Tetbury Advertiser
Probably the first and last time Donald Trump will feature on the cover of the Tetbury Advertiser – the editor put him on there because of my commet about his hair towards the end of my Young By Name column this month!

(This post was written for the November issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, which was published prior to both Guy Fawkes Night and the US Election)

“We don’t do Halloween in our house, because it’s all about fear and ingesting too much sugar,” said a friend of mine halfway through October. With two children under five in her household, the second point alone was something to fear.

While her comment didn’t make me cancel the Halloween party I’d promised my daughter (13), it did remind me that prior to becoming a parent, I’d been anti-Halloween too.

I’d preferred Guy Fawkes Night, believing it to be a more patriotic tradition until I discovered recently that Halloween was a British export to America.

Who’s That Guy?

Even so, when I was a child, we never celebrated Halloween. My first taste of trick or treating was when I spent a year in the USA at the age of eight. No-one over there had ever heard of Guy Fawkes Night. Fireworks, they told me, were for the Fourth of July, not the Fifth of November.

Back on home turf, we resumed our annual family Guy Fawkes parties. As a child, chucking an effigy on a bonfire and watching it burn never bothered me. These days, that spectacle horrifies me.  Even if Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed in the act of attempted mass murder, burning him in effigy for hundreds of years afterwards is hardly a civilised response. It’s not far removed from reenacting a public hanging with a mannequin, or seeing a dressmaker’s dummy hung, drawn and quartered.

Variation on a Horrid Theme

These days most Guy Fawkes Night parties have moved away from the original cast, losing any historic justification in the process. Some communities even have elections to choose who to burn in effigy. I daresay there will be plenty of Donald Trumps atop our nation’s bonfires this month. To be fair, his hair would make a great firelighter.

I hadn’t realised how strongly I felt about this issue until I read a request from our local Fireworks Party committee to send along the scarecrows from the recent village scarecrow trail to grace this year’s bonfire. I was aghast, and not only because four new IKEA lime-green blankets went into the giant Very Hungry Caterpiller in our front garden. Most of the other scarecrows had been equally lovable figures, including a sweet elderly couple with a zimmer frame outside the local retirement home. I imagined local children being traumatised by seeing their favourite storybook characters go up in smoke, their parents worrying that granny had wandered into the danger zone by mistake.

So my vote goes for a humane rethink of Guy Fawkes. By all means keep the bonfires and the fireworks. I’m even happy for you to make a Guy. But when you’ve finished, please don’t burn him at the stake. Just chuck him in your cellar, lock the door, and throw away the key. Or export him to the States to stand as president. They could do with a good guy as candidate.