Having just 'endured' the Americanised, commercial hype that is 21st century is Halloween, I am now taking you back down memory lane to when I was a child. Back in the 1950s, we, of course knew all about All Hallow's Eve. Woe betide us if we ever chose to spend the night in a church graveyard where, at the stroke of midnight, the ghosts of those interred would rise up, wailing and screaming and torment us. Only, I and my friends were good little children and, after having our bedtime warm milk and malted milk biscuits, brushed our teeth and were tucked up in bed.
And if we stayed awake in our Winceyette pyjamas, plotting and planning, it would be about collecting firewood for the bonfire now being built or finding old socks to stuff sacks for our guys and purloining our dads' gardening clothes - if they'd let us!
I have nothing against the jolly events that turn fear into fun but, as a historical novelist, I do hope we should never forget our past. However, I do also believe we should never retain old hatreds but look forward to a more tolerant future. You see, I am worried that The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 must still be taught in schools.
Turning now to my own history, here's what Guy Fawke's Night meant to me as a child in the 1950s. This photo does not depict me or my friends at all but it might as well be because of the happy memories it evokes.
Note the two guys in front of the massive bonfire of which the children were justifiably proud. Looking back to my Bonfire Night, I suspect the local dads did most of the bonfire-building on the nearby waste ground, over which a block of flats was later built. Before then, the community dads would buy most of the fireworks between them to which our pennies contributed a little; they took it in turns to light them safely using the firework code which was drilled into all of us by the policemen who visited the schools. The fathers would also hand out lit sparklers to us children, making sure we were all wearing thick gloves. Meanwhile, the mums would spend the previous week baking traditional Yorkshire Parkin, gingerbread and toffee. On the day burnt sausages were handed out and foil-wrapped potatoes were pushed into the bottom of the bonfire They would also regularly dish out crisps and glasses of Tizer. (No doubt, they filled their own glasses with sweet sherry and whisky for their husbands. More likely it was Thermos flasks of tea.) Yes, life were very much gender-divided in those days.
When the fireworks had all been ooed and aahed at and we children had been hurried home to bed, the bonfire was always doused with water. I never remember any serious accidents. I don't doubt there were a few superficial burns and grazed knees and elbows, but the mums were always on hand with a first aid box.
Why has November The Fifth been overtaken so much by Halloween.? I have a few theories. Firstly, it is a very British event and nothing to do with America which because of its size and influence has taken over our culture. In addition, children pestering adults to give them money is basically begging, whereas handing out sweets voluntarily is far more acceptable - even if somehow it smacks of bribery.
That said, I always refuse to open the door after dark even to children I do not know or if their parents have not told me in advance. I used to have to explain the "Trick or Treat" phenomenon to my mother and my father when he was still alive because they were frightened and confused whenever the doorbell rang after dark. They were obliging people and so left their warm fireside several times in order to open the door to children they didn't recognise in what they saw as hideous masks. Some were very rude because they too had not grasped the American-style fun and that it is their equivalent of Bonfire Night and for the community.
Secondly, in these days of Health and Safety and a stretched Emergency Services, fireworks are both highly dangerous and can encourage law-breaking. It is also increasingly expensive. No longer do we tolerate cheap bangers and Catherine Wheels. (And, with reference again to history how many people know what the original Catherine's Wheel was? Here's what trusty Wikipedia says about Saint Catherine of Alexandria.
So, the nostalgic glory days of November the Fifth and Bonfire Night have, in the 21st century, been merged with transatlantic Halloween and has now been enthusiastically embraced by British TV. We are, now a multicultural society. (I have not even mentioned Diwali.)
You see, we humans have always celebrated light in times of darkness. Perhaps, in the future, that's what the this time of year when the clocks go back, we will still all have fun together, whether we be Christian, Hindu, Muslim or Pagan. We're all human . Let us enjoy light, but NEVER FORGET our histories and cultures.