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Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

by Alan Burrows

THE morning after was usually still, dank, hazy as if some enormous conflagration had taken place and Farnworth had somehow survived. In many ways that was true; I often wonder what it would have been like to fly over the Bolton area between 6pm and 7pm on November 5th - Guy Fawkes Night - and look down on myriad bonfires in almost every back street or patch of open ground ... scenes perhaps reminiscent of incendiary bombing during the blitz of World War II.

Neither did bonfires just happen; they were orchestrated events that took weeks of planning, ingenuity and toil. About the start of October boys, and occasionally girls, would start their dedicated collecting of bonfire material because the size and intensity of the blaze was a status symbol among the young 'uns of the '40s and '50s.

'My gang' from Campbell and Cawdor streets would scour the neighbourhood for old wood - tree branches, logs, fencing, anything that would burn. Railway sleepers were a prized item as they lasted long into the night but were hard to come by, yet we did manage to scrounge the odd one or two especially if somebody's dad knew somebody who worked on the railway sidings between Moses Gate and Green Lane.

Every gang member would be expected to hoard flammable material - usually on the sloping flagged roof of the outside toilet/coalshed at the bottom of the back yard. Apart from the obvious fire hazard there was a danger from `scraggers', fiends who supplemented their bonfire collection by raiding others'. So, as the nights ticked away towards `the big one' vigilance was the watchword and sentries would be posted in the neighbourhood. We were never scragged but I have to confess that one year when the pickings were slim we embarked on a raid or two - only from, necessity, you understand! It was looked on as a rudimentary re-distribution of 'wealth'.

Campbell, Cawdor, Lee, Lorne, Georgiana, Edward and Victoria streets were our territory although we had occasional forays to the Doe Hey or Raikes Lane cloughs, but the haul with trove from those hunting grounds was long and arduous. The grounds of the gigantic Bolton Textile mills that literally overshadowed the neighbourhood and the Vantona bedding factory usually offered something too. One neighbour who endeared himself to all the Campbell Street kids was Charlie Parks at No. 39 who must have had some pull at the mill opposite our house. Almost every Guy Fawkes night he would organise a lorry to arrive just on dusk with a valuable cargo of old skips. These were big, rectangular containers made of thick, woven cane, sometimes with metal wheels still attached, that were used for storing cotton. They looked like hot-air balloonists' gondolas and burned brilliantly because they were usually impregnated with years' worth of factory grease and oil.

Old settees were highly prized too if you were lucky enough to score one, because they could be sat on by the adults until they, inevitably, got fed up with the smoke and sparks, and went indoors leaving the front-row seating to be consigned to the flames. Sometimes they complained of the cold. While your faces and hands were ruddy from the fire, backs and backsides quickly felt the biting November cold.

When the big night finally did arrive kids would race home from school and either bolt or skip their tea to build their bonfires. Some kids would even wag school to make a start on construction or ward off last-minute scraggers. A good foundation was rolled-up newspaper and cardboard boxes; then you'd stack up the lighter kindling and smaller branches and twigs in a sort of wig-wam with heavier palings and branches on the outside. Sometimes, on a rainy November 5th - and there were plenty - rags soaked in paraffin were poked into the guts of the stack.

The minute it went dark and the gang had assembled, along with mams, dads, aunties and uncles it was time to light up. With kids giggling excitedly and the adults chattering in a circle someone's dad would do the honours to a resounding cheer.

The guest of honour would be seated close by. A couple of weeks before the fifth we'd make a Guy Fawkes effigy out of old clothes, sewn up and stuffed with rags or newspaper. His head was usually an old pillowslip or similar with a painted face and if you could cadge an old trilby hat, trousers and wellies your Guy would probably be good enough to rake in a few bob for fireworks when you went around the streets with him asking neighbours and strangers alike `Penny for Guy?' Our Guys were always great because we could always count on at least one mam saying `Bring him 'ere a minute' and they add something or make a vital adjustment that made him more lifelike. As time wore on shops began to sell Guy Fawkes masks, or you'd make them at school from papier mache and paint.

I remember one mob in the next `territory' hit on the bright idea of somebody dressing up as the Guy, plonked in an old armchair which was wheeled along Cawdor Street as his pals scrounged coppers from Hanbury's grocery store patrons or mill workers rushing home. We were envious of the brainwave until a roaming dog with no appreciation of the genius that went into hatching such a cunning ruse took a serious dislike to the Guy and sent him haring down Victoria Street with a piece out of his trousers.

Bonfire Night was a time for eating. Neighbours would pop out with treacle toffee, potato pie and peas, and parkin - a sort of cake made with ginger in it. Then there were the black peas! Boy they were good. I don't know exactly how they were made but it involved steeping and boiling what we called pigeon peas, a sort of dried brown variety that on other occasions were ammunition for pea-shooters and pea-guns that boys would make from wood and strong rubber bands.

They always reminded me of the Holland's black peas you could buy on Farnworth Wakes where you'd sit on a wooden bench in a tent and eat them with a spoon from a thick `British Railways' type cup.

Constipation was unheard of for a couple of days after November 5th.

The really hardy or hungry would insert unpeeled potatoes into the embers around the edge of the fire. Some time later, if you remembered where they were, you'd fish them out with a long stick. The potatoes were hardly recognisable and had a crusty, black jacket. If your fingers could stand the heat you'd peel this off and attempt to eat the remaining mad-hot flesh of the spud - ash and dirt included.

Of course every kid had fireworks and they'd be set of all over the place willy-nilly and with no warning. Weeks before the Fifth kids of all ages would look longingly in the window of the newsagent at the corner of Campbell and Lorne streets; those fortunate enough to have spending money saved would build up a collection of skyrockets, pin-wheels, roman candles, jackjumpers and the ubiquitous bangers. They'd have exotic names such as Mount Vesuvius, Mount Etna, Peacock's Feathers, Flower Pot, Mine of Serpents, Snow Storm, Harlequin, Jewel, Firefly and Golden Rain made by Wessex, Brocks or Standard. The bangers started at 1d (one penny or less than half of one new pence): 1d would buy you a Little Imp. Twopence or even threepence would buy you a Thunderflash, Cannon or a Mighty Atom. They were like tiny sticks of dynamite and when lit and thrown behind a girl were guaranteed to extract a scream. We were young and silly, and had no concept of how dangerous even lighting cheap, mass-produced incendiary devices could be - remember the warning `Light the blue touch paper and retire' - let alone throwing it. Little wonder that there was a push to ban over-the-counter fireworks in favour of regulated and professionally contrived displays.

Some fireworks cost a shilling, even half a crown. Imagine then my pride when one year I lashed out a massive 10 shillings on a skyrocket. Ten bob! It was my Moon-shot and in relative terms cost just about the same as any one of NASA's missions.

I got the biggest bottle I could find and inserted into it the three-foot wooden stick of my rocket which, surely, was just about to leave Earth's atmosphere. It ended in disaster. At the last moment as the fuse was just about burned through ready to ignite the explosive charge, a gust of wind blew it over. The rocket took off down the back street like an Exocet missile, smashing into the wall of a house in Lorne Street in a spectacular shower of sparks then careening off at right angles along Lorne Street ending up who knows where. I never did find the wreckage. Ten bob down the drain! A fortune ... but at least its ill-fated flight took it away from the revellers around the bonfire.

Next day children would rush outdoors to see if their bonfire had any signs of life. If it was smouldering and could be re-ignited, more fun; a rekindled fire and peeled or bubbled paint on a few backyard gates were a sure sign that the bonfire had been a success. Then there was the hunt for and collection of all the spent fireworks which we'd tally up and finally the dirty job of shovelling all the ashes and hundreds of warm nails and bolts into the dustbin - the final act in yet another Guy Fawkes celebration.

They were good times; good for getting rid of rubbish and good for re-establishing the communal spirit of the neighbourhood - all thanks to a band of 13 traitors led by Guido Fawkes who, in 1605, attempted to overthrow King James I and blow up the Houses of Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder.

Imagine the fireworks display that would have created!