Bonfire Wars – Redbourn Early 70’s

I’m really fortunate to have been born and raised in the village in the 60’s and 70’s. But what really does hit home is that I experienced things that kids today have no clue about. Our world consisted of the village boundary, things were small. Simple. And exactly what we needed at that moment. Nothing more, nothing less.

Until that is….

The autumn nights got colder, damper and darkness came early. The beginning of October saw an onslaught of activity, mysterious mounds of combustible material would suddenly appear. The building of bonfires had begun, nothing was safe, nothing was sacred, and undoubtedly we had grown-up rules to follow. No cutting down of live trees, stealing wooden planks, gates or old sheds. Did we take notice, NO! If it burnt or looked like it would burn, on it would go. If you were foolish enough to take off your snorkel parka, on it would go. Scratchy woollen home knitted jumpers were a favourite. Brooke Bond Pallets would appear, then disappear in to the depths of the bonfire, for fear that someone noticed.

All manner of goods disappeared from back gardens, shops, workshops and factories and would invariably end up in one of three places. The Patch of ground behind Snatchup Garages, Nichols Close Green or the waste land between our old School and Hill Top.

For sure there was a gang mentality, to us, an almost Chicago like mobster war of epic proportion. Which Bonfire would get burnt or torn apart and stolen before the 5th, sentries were posted, areas raided, materials pinched. Trees would be dragged for miles and chopped, shaped and stacked to build the biggest and best Bonfire, only to be stolen and inexplicably appear on another bonfire overnight.

Wood saws were taken from sheds, firewood axes were brandished, if a tree looked like it might be old, weak or ready to fall, it was chopped stamped and dragged, if it looked healthy, we would leave it…

Now I’m not sure who started it but on the odd occasion, the Boys of Redbourn Fire Brigade would be called, not for a hoax call but for the early lighting of a bonfire or two.

This always entailed tit-for-tat raids, usually escalating to involve the bigger boys, our mentors and heroes, all wearing tank-tops and high waistband baggy trousers taken-up to show off Dr Martens boots. The best pre-burns were the ones, three or four days before the 5th. Then frantic rebuilding of the bonfire would follow, late night patrols were placed to stop further raids, security was paramount, and getting to the 5th with Bonfires intact was the goal.

It was always the build-up to the 5th that was the best. As most people born before the 1980’s would remember and have fond memories of bangers. These simple fireworks consisted of a rolled cardboard tube filled with gunpowder with a fuse at the top. The banger is lit and then usually thrown or strategically place to cause the most damage or fright possible, ensuring sadist laughter peculiar to boys of an age who knew no better.

Many eyebrows were lost in lighting a Genie, which consisted of several bangers torn and the gunpowder piled in a heap and lit by the brave few to create a flash and puff of smoke. Sometimes the fingers of the person performing the stunt also disappear into a puff of smoke, obviously to the delight of the onlookers.

Friendships were lost or cemented forever with the hilarious pinpoint accuracy of a roman candle.

If an adult was known to give chase, then war parties would wait till the sun went down and without a second thought to health and safety would coordinate attacks on the unsuspecting adult’s house, with a side-splitting firework version of knock-down-ginger. A simply placed banger on a door knocker, would almost certainly be followed by the full-on chase, once begun, it was every boy for himself….woe betide if you got caught or were recognised, at that time the village drums were faster than any known telephone system.

Penny for the guy, which usually meant some poor unsuspecting kid would be forced by the bullying majority, to be dressed and then ceremoniously squeezed in to a pushchair and wheeled door to door, until that is, the gang got bored and the pushchair and occupant were used as a battering ram into the next available pristine privet hedge, it had to be pristine because this would customarily cause the owner to scream blue murder and give chase. Shouting “I know your dad”

So on Bonfire Night, hats, scarves and gloves were adorned to spend the evening outside. Potatoes wrapped in silver foil were thrown into Bonfires, never to be seen again. Sure we had fun on the 5th, but adults were everywhere, which meant rules were in place and that we inevitably had to behave. It was always the build-up that held us, enthralled us and kept us entertained. This is how life was. Smaller. Simpler. Safer…

Until of course October rolled around and the Bonfire wars began

Mark O'Hara

Many years ago, I wrote a story… a very short story, I showed it to my then English teacher, who set about destroying the appalling grammar and spelling. She looked me in the eye and said, don’t bother again, the story will never make sense until you can construct a sentence and use correct grammar. A harsh lesson, indeed! I would like to say I took her critique on board and worked really hard and published my first novel… but alas, I never tried again… I was twelve

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