The threat of being raided was taken so seriously that there were crude (but dangerous) booby traps, trip wires and home made alarm systems awaiting us would-be wood-whippers. With householders on full alert for garden raiders, the clumsy dropping of a plank may well have been met by a Monty Burns-esque cry of release the hounds, and the family’s pet mongrel would come barking and snarling from the house. In such cases, less portable booty would be abandoned and the raiders would flee, jumping garden fences in a horseless steeplechase.
As Guy Fawkes’ Night (which was cynically but somewhat justifiably called Burns Night by staff at the local casualty ward) approached, the streets came alive with speculation and rumour from a network of spies, double agents and fifth columnists. These agents passed on intelligence as to where wood was stored and how tight or lax security was. Such information had to be treated with the utmost caution, however, as it may have been merely a set up for an ambush and a beating, especially if the information related to a gang that had already had some of its firewood stolen.
We stored our wood in a derelict house at the bottom of the street, and we were victims of theft a few times, although once we got a strong enough gang together to repel the raiders. The general rule was, if someone stole your bonfire wood then the best way to get even was to steal it back – and then some.
One mistake we never made was to set up our bonfire before November 5th. Anyone doing this ran the very real risk of seeing their efforts go up in flames prematurely, lit by a thrill-seeking firebug on his way home from the pub late at night, when the stack was unguarded. This was viewed as a heinous crime to those who lost their bonfire, but it attracted little sympathy from the rest of us.
If our firewood survived, we’d set up our bonfire after school on the fifth, seating the unfortunate Guy on the top. When it was ablaze, children from traditionalist families would throw in whole potatoes to bake in the heat (alongside the hedgehogs). There was usually an impatiently ravenous rascal, who would claw his potato from the embers after only thirty minutes or so. His feast would be jet black and only cooked for a quarter of an inch below the skin; beyond that it was as raw as an apple.
These turf wars provided genuine excitement for us, with a filling-in being the worst that could happen. I don’t see nearly so many home-made bonfires these days – whether this is due to an increased awareness of health and safety, or a cautionary response to today’s where there’s blame, there’s a claim culture, I don’t know. I’d like to think, though, that somewhere out there youngsters are setting up booby traps to protect their bonfire wood, while others are hatching plans to steal it. I’m sure the resultant adrenaline rush would better any that could be gained on a games console.