Bonfire Night


For us kids the two biggest events of the year were Christmas day and Bonfire night ( November 5th ) . I was fascinated by the story of the Catholic Anarchist Guy Fawkes who attempted to blow up the king and the houses of Parliament . I remember years later smiling when the Labour MP Tony Benn referred to Guy Fawkes as the last person with any genuine principles to enter the house of commons . The fact that most of us youngsters in Old Trafford , at least on our neighbouring streets , were Irish Catholics didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for making Guys and getting out there and hustling . The End of September was a good time to start collecting ‘ Penny for the Guy ‘ . Mind you any tight fisted individual who only tipped up a penny was roundly and vociferously ridiculed as a Skinflint . ” What’s he going to do with a penny mister , stick it up his arse and have a race ” . These little remarks of ours we never quite understood , but older lads said them and they sounded clever and tough and that of course was the whole idea , but we always made sure when making these comments that we were at a safe distance .

When collecting penny for the Guy you needed of course a Guy. Now it was worth making an effort , because often the only competition locally in late September would be from some particularly scruffy kids on Oxford street who’d stick an old jumper over a teddy bear and wheel it round in a toy pram . A pair of our dads old trousers and a shirt or pullover stuffed with newspaper sewn together with a head made of rolled up newspaper in a brown paper bag with a face painted on it and our Tonys Man United scarf wrapped around its neck as an added selling point , that was our Guy and then an old trolley or baby buggy to wheel it around in . Owning the Guy of course meant the majority of any money collected went to you. Our parents may well have voted Labour and my own father was twenty five years a shop steward , but at that age I personally had no time for such irritatingly wishy washy liberal sentiments as socialism .

It was important to have a crew. First of all to clear those pesky Oxford street kids off a prime site and of course to make sure that when the Guy was propped up outside the newsagents shop on Chorlton road near all the bus stops on a busy dark Thursday evening you could reach as many punters as possible .Thursday night was the best night . All the blokes were in a good mood as it was pay day and they’d be walking round with pockets full of change from the paper shop . We had to suffer the odd lecture off some old geezer who’d tell us that penny for the Guy was like begging . We never quite cottoned on to this as we thought beggars were old men with ragged trousers and no shoes who asked for pieces of bread while sitting in the road . Strangely enough back in the sixties with all the terraced houses and lack of bathrooms and inside lavatories we had never actually seen a genuine beggar , that was something that came with high unemployment and boom and bust years of the nineteen eighties .

Penny for the guy was lucrative but it was important to pick your crew carefully . Firstly you couldn’t have any kid who looked too cheeky or who was known for giving cheek to the local residents ……this ruled out the Marky twins . Also it was no good picking a kid who was too tough and would start arguing about getting a fair share of the money or who wouldn’t pool the money they’d collected even though it was my Guy ….so that definitely ruled out Jimmy Millar . No the best carefully selected crew for Penny for the guy was my five year old brother Kevin Patrick and two young kids of Jamaican descent Richard and Rennie
Simpson. This was a particularly good move business wise as a lot of West Indians lived on our street . These were mainly young single males working in Trafford Park and several actually lodged at Richard and Rennie’s house and they were very generous often tipping up as much as two shilling a time .

The Simpsons were the nicest politest and in some respects the softest kids on the street . , and good fun to be with. Richard and I were the same age and first met when a crowd of us lead by Jimmy Millar chased him and his brother Rennie off the Street to the front of their house . Richard and Rennie were the first black kids of our age to move onto the street and had only just moved in , so we pursued them with violent intent . I can still picture them knocking urgently on their mothers front door , shouting through the letterbox frantic to be let in before we caught them and give them the obligatory lamp post treatment for ….well for being darker skinned than us and as a kind of welcome to the neighbourhood . I had a large pebble in my hand and in frustration I threw it at Richard’s head from an angle that meant if it didn’t hit him it would hit the side panel of the houses bay window . He ducked and my stone which had been well aimed just missed his head and with a sickening feeling I saw the glass shatter and tumble . At that moment as we split to scarper in different directions Richard’s mum flew out the door like a whirlwind and snatched Brian Marky and started to interrogate him . As I sat breathlessly in my mother’s kitchen there was a loud urgent knocking at the door . Mrs Simpson was there with Richard and Rennie. I was a shambolic set of excuses.

“Why were you chasing them”?
“Er we were just playing ….pretending “.
“Why did you break the window?”
” Well he threw a stone at me ( lie ) so I threw it back and I was aiming for his head and he ducked ” .

There was no escape from my guilt and my dad was none too pleased when he had to pay for and install a new window in the Simpsons residence . My Dad was never Mr DIY and hated doing anything like that and wasn’t too even tempered when after working a twelve hour shift his short amount of leisure time was disturbed . I was hit with his belt as punishment which may seem harsh but was the law in those days and understood , but what I could never get over was the dexterity of Richard’s duck ; that stone had been well aimed and was going straight for his head and he only saw it for a split second , I was impressed …he was a decent kid .

After that we started hanging out together , but it was when my younger brother Kevin started palling around with Rennie who was the same age as him that trouble started . Because Richard never went anywhere without his brother Rennie , I had to let Kevin hang out with me . It put a dampener on being able to mess about with the Markys and Jimmy Millar . Our Kevin was too small to be able to run fast enough to escape the clutches of grown-ups who caught us climbing onto the roof of the Sharon Gospel church on Chorlton road or climbing onto their backyard walls and sitting on the roof of their outside loo , knocking on doors and running away was out too . Black and white rabbit we called it , one of the more sedate ways we passed our time . The only thing our Kevin and Rennie were good for really was Penny for the Guy .

The deal was this , Richard and myself stood with the Guy and trolley outside the Newsagents window on Chorlton road accosting the punters as they came out with the change still warm in their hands while Kevin and Rennie worked the bus stops further up the same busy main road . all the money collected was to go on Fireworks , and as neither Richard or his brother were allowed fireworks they’d be paid off with a portion of cash and enjoy the odd stick of liquorice or a few penny chews to keep their spirits up .

One particularly cold dark Thursday evening at around five thirty we were raking it in like bent stock brokers . Bonfire night was almost here and I’d saved almost a pound over the past few weeks . As it approached our six O’clock curfew I turned around and there was no sign of our Kevin or Rennie . Where were they on this busy thoroughfare ; two five year olds begging at bus stops on a cold winter evening for money for a Guy which the punters would need a pair of binoculars with night vision attachments to spot . I was concerned as Richard and myself jogged along Chorlton road pushing the Trolley with our guy flopping it’s worryingly loose head as we
Flew over the cracks in the pavement. We looked around nothing no sign of them , retracing our steps back towards the paper shop my fear mounted , the Bogy man had got them , lifts from strangers , they’d wandered up too far from where we were and got lost in the dark near the Whalley pub or one of them had been knocked down or both of them and were lying bleeding by the side of the road in the dark . But now I was frightened of something which in a way was much worse and as we neared the paper shop the full horror dawned on me . Kevin and Rennie were coming out of the Newsagents with their hands and pockets bulging with sweets , lucky bags and Toy soldiers that cost sixpence each . I’d never seen so many sweets outside a sweetshop over seven shillings worth of goodies . Apparently at my younger siblings suggestion they’d hidden , waited until they saw Richard and myself leave the front of the Newsagents and head towards the bus stops in our misguided search and slipped past us into the shop and spent all the money they’d collected on what had been a bumper night on their assorted goodies . Now the bottom line as far as I was concerned was that it was my Guy and my money so after having a good thumping and the majority of their purchases confiscated Kevin and Rennie were told to stop crying and say nothing to our mams and taken home . I have to admit that after that I had a sneaking admiration for my younger brother , in many respects he reminded me of……..well me !

The build up to Guy Fawkes night was an occasion for great excitement in our area . All the local teenagers from the neighbouring streets would compete to have the biggest communal Bonfire . All around that particular end of Old Trafford and neighbouring Hulme and Moss Side were literally streets full of condemned houses awaiting demolition and they were full of large wooden rafters , copper boilers , floorboards abandoned furniture even the thick planks of wood used to board up the doors and windows before the corporation got round to bricking them up . These boarded up houses were raided in turn. First for the copper boilers and lead flashings which would be wheeled on prams by the older teenagers to Albert Quixalls scrap metal merchants on Little Lever street just around the corner . Albert Quixall who owned the scrap merchants was a former Manchester United player , a record transfer buy from Sheffield Wednesday at £45,000 just after the Munich air crash of 1958 . Once those items worth cash had been stripped and sold the gangs then set about plundering anything flammable from the neighbourhood . This bungy wood as it was called would be stacked to a height of over twenty feet in a huge teepee shape on our croft bounded by the houses on Croston Street , Duke Street , Chorlton Road and Ayres road . This was without a doubt the best time of year for us younger kids . The older lads talked to us and acted as supervisors organising us into foraging parties . We’d be told to guard the stack of bungy wood on our croft and raise the alarm if any gangs of rival youths from Oxford Street and Clifton street came raiding for bungy wood . Meanwhile the Marky’s , Colleens , Finns and the Pyes would organise raiding parties to carry off bungy wood being stacked on the crofts on Clifton Street , Stamford Street and Oxford street , even going as far as the middle of Hulme on their forays . There would often be some serious fighting at that time , and I remember on one occasion when a large group of local youths were gathered on our street with bicycle chains and Iron bars , even an old bayonet which we were all eager to see as we stood on the fringes of their group holding sticks and our pockets full of stones. , weapons we discarded when the Police arrived in force to disperse the unruly gathering . Needless to say the lads from our street were the roughest and toughest in the neighbourhood and launched regular assaults and forays on the neighbouring streets leaving us to mind the bungy wood , where we’d build little dens in the middle of the stack scraping our bare legs on rusty nails and puncturing our young flesh with some of the nastiest , dirtiest and biggest wood splinters you could imagine . In the darkness of our dens amongst the dusty smelling woodiness we’d brag how we’d one day go raiding for bungy wood and carry bike chains and get ten bob notes off Albert Quixall for scrap we’d plundered from the bombed houses . .

Of course we were forever being told by our parents that making dens in the bungy wood was dangerous and we’d hear how the bungy wood had collapsed and crushed other small children like ourselves , but we never believed in what we hadn’t seen unless it was God and Father Christmas , especially when we knew it to be perfectly safe as none of us had ever been crushed and although bits of the den wobbled precariously from time to time we were still in one piece . The only worrying story was that once some lads had set fire to a Bonfire with Paraffin while some young kids were inside and some of them got badly burnt . We knew this danger to be very real and set sentries at all the entrances of the croft to warn us of any impending threat , especially after Jimmy Fletcher and myself had heard Michael Casey bragging to Robert Pye how he and the Fords had torched Oxford streets Bonfire a few days before Bonfire night one year . As Bonfire night got nearer several of the older youths in our street would stay up all night guarding the Bonfire , especially the Finns ,Colleens and Markys who’s houses backed onto the croft .

It always worries me when I read that the first sign of a serial killer is a childhood fascination for lighting fires . We were mad for them. That whole period of Bonfire night was like the spirit of the blitz revisited , everyone pulled together whether teenager or toddler , from penny for the guy to getting Robert Pye to go into the paper shop to buy us some bangers and matches , to being organised into foraging gangs and going on spying missions . We were Duke Street kids. Cocks of the area. We’d watch the older lads throw bangers at the girls and laugh at how annoyed and aggressive they’d become . We’d shriek and run like the clappers when Robert Pye wearing a Leather glove would hold , light and aim a Roman candle at our retreating figures . Once Jimmy Millar was climbing over a wall to retrieve a solid rubber Super ball and Robert Pye hit him on the leg with both balls of a Roman candle he gripped in a gloved hand . The balls of flame had scorched a bit , Jimmy said , but only like when we’d leap bare legged in our shorts over a fire we’d lit . We copied all our elders’ bad habits. Robert Pye threw bangers at people , cats , dogs , through letter boxes , put them in car and lorry exhausts , up drain pipes , down the coal chutes of people’s houses , and we watched and imitated every trick . Our favourite was to empty the gun powder from a banger onto a car bonnet or front doorstep and watch it ignite with an orange flash and a pall of thick white smoke … this is what we used to call a Genie .

Unfortunately Richard and Rennie didn’t enjoy fireworks. Mainly because as the only black kids of a tender age in that part of our street they were seen as moving targets by some of the older lads like Robert Pye and his cronies . Also their mother did keep an eye out for them to make sure they were behaving and the number of lodgers who stayed at their house , referred to by Richard and Rennie as uncles , would also keep a sharp eye out for them , so they were always being spotted and reported then grounded . So in the main during actual Bonfire week I’d renew my acquaintances with Jimmy Millar and the Markys and hang out with the older lads . . Unfortunately the older lads would always try and stir up fights between us younger lads and they especially enjoyed watching me fight with Jimmy Millar . If it happened spontaneously I was quick and bad tempered enough to hold my own , when it was a set thing , usually arranged like a championship boxing bout by Robert Pye, nine times out of ten I’d end up a very sorry bloodied and begrudging loser . Somehow even the name Robert Pye calls to mind that strange feeling of fuzziness and eye watering pain that occurs when ones been struck very hard on the nose and the brain jarring lumpiness of having ones head banged against a hard pavement .

On Bonfire night itself , my big brother Tony would purchase a box of fire works out of his paper round money and we’d contribute our penny for the Guy money to buy loose fireworks like Rip raps ( or jumping jacks ) , Rockets , aeroplanes and extra Roman candles . We’d light sparklers in the back yard and then let off our fireworks in the same cramped space the whole yard lighting up with each fountain saving the best ones like the Roman Candle s and Rockets to last . The smokiness of the spent fireworks and gunpowder over powered the usual sickly drain smell which seemed to hang around every backyard and alleyway in the area . Our favourite were the rockets which would be launched from an empty milk bottle , making us jump inside with the sudden fierceness of their ignition . When all our fireworks were spent , us Christian kids would accompany Tony to the croft to watch everyone else setting off their fireworks and to view that huge Bonfire so lovingly nurtured blazing and spitting huge sparks into the night sky , the heat almost peeling the skin off your face at thirty yards . Tony would then take our Guy as close to the Bonfire as he dared and covering his face from the furnace like heat fling it into the hungry flames and we’d then wander off home to bed listening to the rockets and bangers cracking and exploding across the smoky rooftops of the surrounding houses .

The next day there was more fun and games as we stalked the streets picking up the sticks from used rockets where they’d plummeted to earth , examining them to see if they were ours and wondering if any of them ever reached space . Finally we’d stroll over to the croft and the mound of still smouldering embers of the previous nights Bonfire now scattered with orange glows across a wide area . We’d take bits of half burnt cool wood and the rocket sticks and spent fireworks and taking some of the glowing embers start to blow on them until a small fresh fire was started , dancing around it and experimenting with the flames by putting on bits of plastic and old batteries . Our favourite of course was the obligatory old car tyre , which took a while to catch fire , but would eventually launch a huge pall of acrid smelling oily black smoke into the air and seemed to burn for an eternity , the fumes biting into the backs of our throats causing our eyes to stream . Burning tyres inevitably brought out the women who lived next to the croft who’d chase us off with threats of the police and the fire brigade . If they ever got round to informing our parents we’d just say some older lads lit it and we were just watching . Parents had their mysterious world and we had ours and that was as it should be. In the over-crowded hemmed in and overlooked terraces of our streets , a secret was worth more than gold .Share This!

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