A wistful look back at my childhood, remembering Hallowe'en, Mischief Night & Guy Fawkes Night - the trinity of Autumn fun...
The dark evenings are upon us – looking back to my childhood, this was, without a doubt, my favourite time of the year, mainly because it involved playing out in the dark with the promise of frost, ice and snow waiting in the wings. As well as plenty of sweets, fireworks, and stodgy food, which as a roundish greedy kid, I relished.
I’m originally from Cheshire in the North West of England where cold weather is a regular fixture every winter. Snow usually appears at some point, as do hard frosts that transform the landscape into a sparkling wonderland. None of these weather conditions stopped us playing outside in the dark evenings for hours and hours and we would use any excuse to get up to mischief. On freezing evenings we would pour water along the pavements in order to make an ice slide. The adults didn't like this and we simply couldn't understand why. Now i'm 51, the prospect of breaking a hip doesn't appeal and the penny has now dropped, but back then it was just great fun. There were so many different games we'd play but our absolute top pick was knock and run – simply knocking on a door, running and hiding; then observing the victim looking out into the dark wondering which evil child from the neighbourhood was subjecting them to this naughty little torture by tearing them away from Coronation Street. They might've even uttered a swear word which made it all the more fun. We'd laugh.
Naturally there were nicknames for the neighbours which usually involved strange little back stories – completely made up you understand and with no malice intended – shared only amongst ourselves, which is a good job, because if social services had ever got wind that there was a vampire living on the corner with a werewolf wife, who knows what might have happened.
The seventies was still a time of innocence for many of us kids. Also, a time of relative safety; not as many cars on the roads in those days. Besides, road safety was drummed into our heads from an early age in the form of horrific public information films complete with gore and spooky music. "Stop, look and listen before crossing" became a mantra. Nevertheless, we played out in the streets, unsupervised for many hours and we were always disappointed when we were called in to go to bed. We would sometimes hide when the call came - that would make us laugh too, until we were dragged in and clipped round the earhole.
Putting the clocks back started a chain of celebratory events that would give us that winter vibe and pure excitement. The clocks in the UK are turned back by one hour, always on the last Sunday of October, plunging us into darkness by 5.30pm. The light levels decrease as we move towards the winter solstice when the dimming is noticeable around 3.30pm. During inclement days it seems to stay gloomy all day long. But to the excited child, the clocks going back can mean only one thing - Hallowe'en!
I remember reading about the myths and legends surrounding Hallowe'en and I'd convince myself that if I stared long enough at the sky I would surely see a witch fly by, on a broomstick. I longed to see something spooky - I wanted to be scared. Even as a ten year old, I had a sense of being slightly addicted to the fluttery, excitable, butterfly feeling around this dark season. As I am writing this I'm looking out into the dim, blue gloom of the garden through the patio doors, and I would so freak out if a shadowy figure caught my attention- but the thought of it gives me the same delightful shiver. I'm comforted to know there's a massive poker in the other room which I would be arming myself with if a prowler came anywhere near the back door.
By the late seventies trick or treat was only just starting to be a reality in the UK and wasn’t something that we did. We were much more likely to go from door to door singing some kind of made up song – we would usually adapt a Christmas song, change the words and say that we were “Halloween singing” or "Bonfire night singing". Ridiculous I know! It was a form of begging I suppose. Doors would get slammed in our faces but occasionally we'd be given pennies or sweets or, god forbid, fruit!!! Really? We must've been well known on the estate as we were always trying to come up with ways to make a few pennies for pocket money and we probably drove the neighbours crazy with our hoots and japes.
We'd scare ourselves silly by making up ghost stories. The scariest ones were those supposed true stories that someone’s big brother had told them, usually involving hitchhikers and decapitations. We'd take turns at pretending to go into a trance and chase each other around in a zombie-like state until we caught someone and they would become "it". Good times! We really knew how to entertain ourselves without the aid of electronic devices.
By the 4th of November we were usually primed to get really naughty. In the northwest of England this night is known as Mischief night. This date does tend to change depending on the area that you live in but for us it was always the night before Bonfire Night.
I can't quite remember what we used to get up to, but Mischief night probably involved lots of knock and run. I can vaguely remember throwing little stones at windows. You must understand, we weren’t bad kids and never caused criminal damage – but I think we were quite rowdy in the streets. I do remember people complaining and fists being shaken in the air - the kind of thing I tend to do if kids are being too noisy in our street. Yes, I am finally at the old fart stage.
The 5th November was king in those days. This was the night. Also known as Guy Fawkes night in the UK, celebrating the downfall of Guy Fawkes' gunpowder plot to blow up the House of Parliament in London. Fireworks were everything. We'd to go to my Grandparents house in Wilmslow. They had a huge garden and Granddad would build an enormous bonfire which would be lit with the help of some petrol. It went up very easily and you were lucky if you still had your eyebrows by the end of the night. Goodness knows what he used to burn but there was always a huge pile of stuff. Potatoes were wrapped in foil and tossed into the base of the fire to bake. Meat and potato pie was cooked by Granny along with the sweet treats that Northern folk enjoy such as Parkin, treacle toffee and toffee apples. Surprisingly, we all still have teeth. The adults would be drinking and smoking as did most people back then. It was a big family party with games such as "bob apple" which involved a bucket of water and some apples that you have to try and retrieve with your mouth only. The apples were usually huge and impossible to bite and you nearly drowned several times during the evening but that just added to the fun. Plus, the water washed off the soot from your face after the rocket-like ignition of the bonfire earlier on.
Hundreds of fireworks were let off and sometimes we were allowed to set them off ourselves observing all the rules and being very careful. Names were written in sparkler trails. Handheld fireworks were also a treat and rather frightening. They were basically a roman candle with a plastic handle. You held it at arms length, and a responsible adult lit it and then ran away. I can remember feeling abandoned. You hold on for dear life, failing to enjoy the beauty of the sparkles for fear of losing an arm. Those ones seemed to go on forever.
It certainly was a magical time and I will always treasure the memories. However, as a 51 year old living in an entirely changed world I feel differently about this festival of fire; probably due to the sheer amount of fireworks that are let off nowadays. It no longer seems a cosy affair through my jaded adult eyes- I see the wasted money, the noise, the pollution, and the unfortunate injuries sustained by those people who didn't heed the warnings and didn't play by the rules.
I feel both Hallowe'en and Bonfire Night have become a little too big - there are gains for the money makers and undoubtedly the involved industries employ a lot of people too. I'm not sure how these celebrations will change in the future but in terms of the environment I feel there needs to be an evolutionary process in terms of understanding what is acceptable when releasing whimsical and smokey forms of entertainment into the atmosphere. We all know the big companies are cashing in on the need for children of all ages to look into the sky and gaze at the sparkles and glitter in wonder, perhaps still hoping that a real witch might fly by. Today, it's much more likely to be a communication satellite crashing back to earth wildly out of control.
Am I being very cynical and a total party pooper? Perhaps, but I like to think I'm being a forward thinking citizen of the Earth with a smaller carbon footprint than before.
...long term partners.