September’s new school year was no longer a novelty. The days were shorter and darker with even less time to play outside. Time seemed to crawl through the calendar until the countdown to Bonfire night began. There was a long-running thread of excitement and anticipation in preparing for November 5th. Friends exchanged details of their growing firework collections and of their plans for the evening. We all press-ganged aunts, uncles and parents’ friends – the ones who were fun to have around - into joining us for the big night and bargained with parents over our final bedtime. If November 5 happened to be either a Friday or a Saturday there might be permission for a really late night (well after 9); the chance to huddle around the bonfire until it was just a faint glow. Bonfire Night was the first of the winter excitements. Only after November the fifth did the shops gradually assume their Christmas finery and hint at the best time of all.
The newsagents on Cheadle Road and the ironmongers around the corner from the Co-op both served their customers from behind glass-fronted counters. Customers could see the goods on offer but only the shopkeeper could slide open the glass doors at the back of the counter and retrieve them. During firework season the glass doors in both shops remained firmly locked. From late September these counters became home to sparklers, rockets and small selection boxes of fireworks which could be seen but absolutely never reached by covetous little fingers. Penny bangers and rip-raps could be bought in ones and twos. I’m not sure what laws governed their sale but somehow they found their way into the hands of delighted boys whose sole aim was to terrify each other.
When it was time to buy our fireworks my dad and I would take the bus to Wiles, the big toy shop in the middle of Manchester, and choose from their huge selection. The excitement had begun! A large section of the shop floor was transformed into the fireworks department. It consisted of a half-moon arrangement of large glass-fronted counters. The lower sections contained the longer items like rockets and very expensive groups of fireworks fastened on to wood with long, combination wicks. (These were obviously for organised displays). The smaller, individual fireworks were laid out on top of the counters, grouped by name (Mount Vesuvius, Roman Candle etc.) The groups were divided from each other by shallow glass panels. Taller, angled glass panels separated customers from the objects of desire. I could just about see the front row of large Catherine wheels but had to be lifted up to enjoy the full selection available. In the centre of this arrangement of cabinets was an assistant wearing white cotton gloves. The lady with the white cotton gloves was in absolute control of the whole area. No pushing or attempted touching of the fireworks passed without a sharp rebuke – usually prefaced by ‘You boys…’ as she glared at the culprits She alone picked up and carefully added individual items to a tray as we made our selection. Only when we had paid was our haul placed in a tissue lined box and handed over.
Sparklers were a must, some rockets and Catherine wheels and a few quietly fizzy sparkly things like Golden Rain and Bengal matches to please my mum but most of our fireworks had been chosen to bang, whoop, dazzle and shriek their way through the evening. My mum particularly hated rip raps because she said they chased her. I spent the next few weeks until the big night constantly getting my fireworks out of their box, lining them up, counting them and putting them back. As a result, the tissue in the box was covered in all kinds of powder and considering that my parents both smoked heavily it's a wonder the flat didn't go up in a blue light. There were the annual warnings in school assembly about safety with fireworks and cautionary tales of careless children who had been permanently injured, which just made November 5th all the more exciting.
Building the bonfire took time and planning. For weeks beforehand there would be the general annoyance of children seizing every scrap of wood and kindling available - and some really not available - to build the biggest and the best bonfire ever. This went on all over England. It was regarded as entirely natural that boys should steal everything burnable, pile it up dangerously high and enjoy fighting one another in the process. Most people had some kind of bonfire, no matter how small, either in their own garden or at a neighbour’s house. My dad recalled flying home from a business trip on November 5th and seeing hundreds of small points of light all over the country.
November 5th was the perfect occasion for all the fathers in our flats to release their inner hooligan, create a din and set fire to things. The weather in late autumn was generally cold and occasionally wet. I think my mother regularly prayed for a downpour and cancellation. One memorable November 5th we were joined by one of my best friends, Denise Wynn. This was unusual. Her family lived in a Victorian semi on the opposite side of Cheadle Road, but we were the constant objects of her mother’s disapproval. Denise didn’t care; she liked being around some of the mad things that went on. Anyway, that year the weather had been damp and the fire did not seem inclined to burst into life. My dad suddenly appeared with a jerry can of petrol and hurled its entire contents onto the smouldering heap. Flames shot out wildly. Denise and I jumped up and down and cheered whilst my mother stood by shaking her head. I suppose she knew that Denise’s excited recollection of the evening would be added to the list of black marks against the flat dwellers.
When it came to setting off the fireworks, somehow, Catherine wheels were always a disappointment. They fizzed obligingly but rarely moved - just scorched the parts of the fence they were nailed to. Rockets were much the same - mostly just lame, colourful streaks: Woosh and they were gone. The best fireworks came in squat containers with names on the side like The Screamer. I was never allowed to handle them. I realise now that my dad bought those for himself. They were completely unpredictable, dazzling and deafening in equal measure – just the right combination of terror and delight.
The whole display was all over too quickly. The last enjoyment was the baked potatoes roasted in the remains of the fire. Only parts of them were cooked and their skins were covered with random gritty bits of ash from the embers, but eating them bought us another 10 minutes or so before bed.
Then the fun carried on the next day at school as we exchanged tales of disasters, real and imagined: Where was Raymond Sarfas? Had he ended up in hospital with no hand because he kept hold of a lit banger? My mother got chased by a rip-rap! Deliciously horrible speculation. We hung on to the last threads of the excitement by hunting for the husks of any firework remains whilst the smoky smell still hung in the air