Monday, 7 November 2011

Remember, Remember

Every year on November 5th the British skies are lit with colours and sparks, and gardens warmed by the amber glows of firelight. The ground is usually muddy wet and littered with autumnal leaves and there is always a fine mist grazing the milk of a half moon. The air is filled with the cold scent of winter approaching and the lingering dust of burning wood and smoke. It's the kind of night which makes you avoid dark alleys and abandoned streets to seek the comfort and familiarity of tradition.

We learned of the tradition at school. Pencils in hand we'd chant: 'Remember remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.' There were brief mentions of a man called Guy Fawkes but any embellishments of his story were cut short by the excitement the night would bring. Colourful fireworks, explosions and sparklers were all a kid could wish for. 

When I was little we could rarely afford the fireworks but we always had a permanent supply of wood that my Dad built into a large nest at the bottom of the garden. Our friends would arrive with their own Guy Fawkes; a set of old clothes stuffed with newspaper and a plastic mask attached as the head. We'd sit him on top of the bonfire and slowly watch him crackle and flame. 

The night was meant to be a celebration of victory over a plot against our country's King but, in spite of this, I often remember feeling deflated. The slow melting of the plastic mask on the Guy, the drip and droop of his smiley face in the heat made me sad and wistful for something. The way my sparkler never lasted long enough to write my full name and the singe and spit as I threw its heated stick into a bucket of cold water. The way the fireworks died just as soon as the colour hit the black night sky. Watching the dying embers of the fire; the charred remains and soft drifts of grey smoke as if something was gone forever but never knowing what that something was. 

Our supply of wood died sometime during my early teenage years and with it, the childish excitement. The older I got the less significant this tradition became until it evolved into another November night, with only the loud bangs in the distance to serve as a reminder.

But due to my sister's recent desire to make new traditions, on Saturday I found myself dragged along to the Bonfire Night celebrations at Leeds Castle in Kent. Dressed like my younger self all those years before; coat, scarf and gloves, I trailed my Wellington boots through a field of mud, lugging a camping chair on one shoulder and a desire to be indoors on the other.

We set up our chairs beside the lake before buying bags of roasted chestnuts and cups of hot chocolate. There were thousands of people around us; some stood eating candy floss and hot dogs, others sat on picnic blankets on the grass. As the night darkened and the crowds built further, I blew steam from my cup, legs stretched ahead, waiting. I thought it would be like all the other times; pointless. 

But there was no bonfire this time. No newspaper-stuffed Guy Fawkes or melting mask, no dying sparklers. The music started and the fireworks exploded in the sky and around me kids waved flashing lightsabers that made their faces glow red and blue. For just 40 minutes everyone put their lives on pause to watch the spark and fade in the sky above, illuminating the castle behind and the water below.

And I didn't feel sad or deflated or wistful for something I didn't know. I felt the spark of something new, something long forgotten and suddenly I realised I had come full circle. I wondered why it took me twenty-six years to finally embrace what I should have done as a child; the excitement of tradition. The idea that you grasp fistfuls of these brief celebratory moments (as minor as sitting in a camping chair in the freezing cold with your family) and enjoy it while you can because, honestly, the experience is so fleeting.

And there is one thing that I'll remember now that I never did as a child; soon we can do it all over again. There is always next year. Perhaps because I'm older now, it doesn't feel like a lifetime away.