Ok, so I’m going to get this off my chest. I’m going to spill the beans on my childhood. Give you a little glimpse into how I grew up and what I got up to.
The first thing you need to know… books and me don’t go that far back. I was twenty before I read my first book!
When I interview writers it’s nearly always the case that they were reading before they could tie their shoelaces. Well, not for me. School and books and reading were so far away from what I wanted to do as a child. All I wanted to do was skip and whoop with delight – as we called it – ‘playing out’.
I love Dylan Thomas poem Fern Hill and the first line Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs. That was my life to some extent – playing out, swimming in lakes, climbing, running.
Now I’m painting this as a little too idyllic… reality was we were ‘naughty’. Best way to describe me and my friends would be ‘little rips’. Another would be ‘bloody nuisances’. Yeah… maybe that is a better description. We were forever getting into trouble.
It was what you did as a child – it was a given that you were going to be trouble. Not trouble like fighting or stealing, but enough to have people chase us all over the place.
And fires! Oh fires were the magic that drew us all out into the open. We set so many things alight when we were young. You name it… corn fields, sheds, straw bails, other kids camps – all were targets for us. Fires really were the essential playthings of my childhood.
Throughout the year, all our fire lighting was training for the ‘big day’. The one day where lighting fires in the UK was ok. I’m talking about Guy Fawkes night on the 5th of November. This was our day!
It was a given that you build your bonfire the biggest you possibly could the week leading up to Guy Fawkes night, and it was also given that you would try to burn down everyone else’s bonfires before the glorious 5th! We would always have two kids guarding our fire against rogue ‘starters’, and the rest of us would be away hunting through the estates for other fires to burn.
The sheer excitement I felt then scrabbling over garden fences is coming back to me now. Yes… it was wrong but it was also… so exhilarating. All fires were game. It mattered not if it was a big gang fire like our own, a public display fire, or even a little fire in someone’s garden. If our pile was standing up and ready, we would, armed with our bottles and cans of petrol, go marauding for fires to start. If we hit lucky and set a hold of another villages fire or gang fire, we had to be especially vigilant of our own in case of reprisals.
I will always remember one fire we lit. Looking back it was silly me and, trust me, very dangerous – but the thrill then outweighed the risks. It was a week before Guy Fawkes Night, and we had traveled far, much further than usual. We’d taken our bikes, and if memory serves we had gone about seven or eight miles to our target. We had discussed at school that we would hit this particular fire. It was big. The gang was big. The town it was in was big!
Now, when I say gangs here it is nothing like what we now think of as gang culture. This was just groups of kids growing up in the countryside. I think we were (and my memory of this is sketchy)… I believe there must have been ten of us that night. It was around 7pm – an ideal time for the thrills to begin.
Now… this is no word of a lie: our little ‘thing’ was to totally demolish an opponents fire. Our mission was not a success if the pile was still even partially standing – if it wasn’t completely destroyed, we had failed.
One of the ways we would make sure the fire was destroyed – really destroyed – was to blow it up as well as burn it to the ground. Blowing it up involved lighting it up with petrol, but also putting in a small gas camping bottle. When the fire took hold, the gas bottle would explode and blow the fire out!
I remember this fire we’d picked for that night’s target was huge. We didn’t know any of the kids who’d built it… we were, as I mentioned, quite a long way from home. And this was a big fire.. really big. So we needed a *big* gas bottle!
I know… I know… As I type this now at the age of forty-nine I’m slightly staggered at the level of danger we put ourselves in, and others. Honestly… now that I’m writing it down I’m having a hard time putting this in here!
Anyways… we had to get over a large area of waste ground to get at their pile. Luckily no one was guarding the fire, and it was a clean sprint to the target.
I remember to this day the size of the gas bottle – it was so big it was made out of iron and not aluminium! The flames shot into the air as we all throw our bottles of petrol on. I’m not sure why but anyways setting it a light was easy, and no one from their gang came.
We scrabbled back to a safe distance to watch her ‘go up’. And up she went! When it did blow, it was literally like a small atomic bomb going off. I can still see the mushroom cloud going up with the explosion… It was a big fire when we got there… and then that big gas bottle… The explosion was so huge it put out a couple of house windows in the area! The fire was completely destroyed, and all the night sky was awash with tiny fire embers. They flickered to earth like tiny shooting stars.
It really was one of those eerie moments deafened by silence. I think we were all stunned by what had happened. It really was a spectacular sight…
But, we all knew this was one explosion too much for us. At that age, we had never for one minute contemplated the risks. I’m really not sure if we’d have listened if someone had tried to tell us before that our little game was dangerous, and that one of us could have easily been killed by flying shrapnel that night. But, once that fire went ‘up’, something changed in all of us.
We heard later that it had blow a three foot deep hole in the ground! The sight of all those amber specs of fire filling and floating in the sky has stayed with me all these years. I can even recall the concussion of it hitting my chest as the explosion ripped through the fire.
It was the last stunt for us, but the memories have never left. We never did go back and start any more fires. It was the last time our little gang would peddle into the night looking for rival piles to burn. Yes… we still had our own fire each year, but even that was somewhat staid by what we had done that night.
It really was such a silly stupid thing to do and now, if I was to find out my son was doing the same thing… Well… I would bring a whole load of trouble down on him. Funny though… I feel when I was a kid – we really knew how to live our little lives to the full. Now it’s very rare my youngest son goes out. The lure of Xbox has a bigger pull on them these days.
Still… I have the memories. Yes it was a silly thing to do, really silly but… how easy and carefree our lives were back then.
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs.
Would I do it all over again?
There you go. A little trip down the misbegotten adventures of my youth. It’s great being able to share it with you here in the District of Wonders. I still get excited when there’s a fire these days – it’s still there within me, the thrill and excitement of those carefree days. They were good times, if not terribly wise, and I can still get the thrill of the fire and no one worries unless I burn the burgers on the barbie!