LONDON – It gets dark very early in London at this time of year. By five o'clock it's pitch black.
Tonight, though, the sky is lit up with the bright and sparkling explosions of fireworks.
Bonfires blaze in towns and villages across the country.
If you want to know why, you'll need a kid of my generation or older to tell you.
"Remember, remember the Fifth of November, Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason, Should ever be forgot …"
We used to chant this scrap of verse every year.
Nowadays it's Halloween that captures the imagination. But for close to 400 years we've celebrated a quaint little custom here called Guy Fawkes night.
|Mike Hewitt / Getty Images|
|Conor Hewitt, 11, makes light circles with a sparkler during Guy Fawkes Night celebrations in Brighton.|
Back in 1605 a bunch of conspirators – disgruntled Catholics – decided to try to kill the king and members of parliament because they felt badly treated. They smuggled 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar under the House of Lords with a plan to blow the place sky-high.
But the aforementioned Mr. Fawkes got caught red-handed in the early hours of Nov. 5 and, as was the custom back then, got tortured and executed for his trouble.
Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the safe deliverance of the king with bonfires. Then a hundred years or so later someone got the smart idea of putting an effigy of Guy Fawkes on top and burning it. Someone else added fireworks. And so the tradition was born.
As a child in a Lancashire town we used to collect the bonfire wood for weeks, staging friendly raids on neighboring streets to relieve them of their best timber. Building the biggest fire was a matter of pride.
The problem was we lived in narrow streets of terraced houses with only a tiny back lane in between, and – no surprise – no one wanted the fire next to their house. So we used to rush home from school, stack the wood high, and throw on the torch before the neighbors got home from work.
These were great nights, though not for those folk just back from the factory who could only watch as their back gates slowly turned to ashes.
TV was still a rarity and life was lived – surprisingly safely – outside. Many houses had pianos, but they were slowly falling out of fashion and every year one would be dedicated to the flames. It was always the last thing to go – spared till the last minute so that some talented soul could bang out a few, final tunes.
At the edge of the flames we baked potatoes in the smoking ashes and ate them piping hot. There were sausages and cinder toffee, hot tea and toast.
As I write this fire-rockets are screaming into the night behind my office and lighting up the sky.
Guy Fawkes could not have imagined he would never be forgot. Bonfires, fireworks and burning effigies are his legacy. And just occasionally these days, when our politicians let us down, people still remember old Guy, and even speak fondly of him.