Bonfire Night – an epic, vulgar, colourful British tradition designed to bring out the hungry mob in us. Fireworks fizzzz, whiz, soar – bang! crack! – as effigies go to hell on great blazes. Not as pulse-poundingly exciting as a Victorian hanging or a daytrip to the madhouse, no doubt, but there’s compensation. That feast of hot spuds, hot dogs with fried onions, simple soups, steaming pies and peas, fiery parkin and sickly, smoky toffee that threatens to crack your teeth as you chomp. Families, nay, communities across our heaven-blessed isles come together to be warmed by the flames and to commemorate the thwarting of the devilish Gunpowder Plot. Or, as the case may be, joke about a missed opportunity. Grab a few beers. Make cheap remarks about sending fortunes up in noisy, prismatic puffs of smoke. ‘Shut up, Jack! The little uns enjoyed it!’ They wrote their names in the air with sparklers. A fleeting, effervescent foreshadowing of X-factor neon lights? Or an all too familiar fizzing and fading to nothing?
Bonfire Night; a great British tradition.
In the summer I moved to the south-west of England from my northern homeland, Yorkshire. Imagine my surprise to discover that our legendary Mischief Neet is, in these parts, The Great Unknown. ‘Gawd, I can’t be putting up with the Trick or Treaters’ shenanigans,’ someone complained as Halloween loomed. ‘Nothing but a pain in the butt.’
‘Surely,’ I replied, ‘it’s far worse on Mischief Neet.’
‘You know, Mischief, ahem, Night.’
‘It’s when, you know,’ I started, suddenly understanding a Manc’s disorientation on a night out in deepest Leeds, ‘kids, er, get mischievous in the name of tradition.’
A figurative scratching of heads. Frowns.
‘The night before Bonfire Night kids re-enact history, sort of. As the plotters mischievously sneaked explosives into the Houses of Parliament, they go out and get up to no good,’ I explained more emphatically and correctly. I hoped.
‘Never heard of that here.’
Never heard of it? That’s flummoxing, flabbergasting, Mr Fawkes, huh? That big night of my childhood wasn’t and isn’t a never-to-be-missed date on the archetypal UK kid’s calendar. I checked. They do Christmas. Phew!
For the uninitiated Mischief Neet/Night takes place on the 4th November. Pure carnivalesque, it involves meeting your mates in the great, shadowy, urban outdoors and – you guessed it – creating myriad mischief, all of which is forgiven under an unspoken people’s law. Kind of. Just don’t get caught. Wear a balaclava or a Guy Fawkes’ mask, if need be. Conventional pranks include tying neighbours’ door knobs together; banging on doors and running away; removing garden gates; dumping the contents of dustbins onto the streets; hurling bags of a gunky egg-shampoo mixture at windows; igniting paper containing a scoop of dogshit on someone’s doorstep, knocking, running away, laughing that they’ll get more than they bargained for when they stamp it out… That’s not an exhaustive list, but you get the gist.
Some kids even develop a sense of Mischief Neet professionalism. One year, as I recall, our local rag condemned rampaging teenage bandits who’d swept across the town leaving thousands of pounds’ worth of damage in their wake. Yes, that hefty, dusty book would have been thrown at them if they’d been apprehended. Far worse is the tragic story of a young lad who’d hollowed out a den in his unlit bonfire so he could guard it overnight – he’d heard some kids in the neighbourhood had ideas about prematurely firing up the festivities. Alas, the little guard dozed off and his treasured pyramid of flaky, battered doors, splintering planks and sawn-off branches inadvertently became a funeral pyre.
It’s all too easy to dwell on isolated incidents. Should Halloween be damned because a gunman wounded several revellers during a genuinely horror-show party at the University of Southern California? Mischief Neet’s negligible regard for law and order might trouble some people, but since when did wicked witches, wizards and monsters care about civilised rules and laws? Why celebrate them? Magic? The improbable and the impossible? Taking from the rich and giving to the poor? The enduring popularity of the Robin Hood myth hints at a different facet of the national psyche to the one that, in an act of establishment-sponsored voodoo, burns Fawkes’ effigies, year in, year out. Make no mistake, Mischief Neet was – probably still is – outlaw awesome. Yup, not as wholesome as the picnic capers in Enid Blyton’s novels, but jolly, rip-roaring fun, all the same.
Don’t be so easily tempted to play the solid, dutiful citizen or the refined gent or lady who simply has to look down one’s nose at such downright roguishness, either. There’s more to British culture than toasting the Queen, paying taxes and owning a widescreen TV. Shakespeare, for example. Those who grace the theatre to see, say Othello, will happily, affectedly discuss the social, cultural significance of the anarchic charivari ritual that the play’s exposition revels in. Mischief Neet is a full-blooded descendent of charivari, though freer, not as intrinsically reactionary. When society has you down as one of the little mugs who is always expected to say, ‘Yes master’ (or some variant of it), it’s damn liberating to tear up the rule book once in a while. That misunderstood, brilliant, wicked insurrectionist-without-a-flag, Iago, isn’t an unfathomable mystery to all of us. And if all you can think about is little monsters ruining your peace in front of the goggle-box or godforsaken property (for which you’re beyond your eyeballs-ability-to-see in debt), society’s pliers have bent you to learn the cost and not the value of real living. Get outta the vice!
So it came as a culture shock to discover that not everybody has heard of, let alone indulged, The Great Tradition. Bloomin’ ‘eck, is it really just a northern thing, then? I hastened to my books, being one of those souls who by and large mistrusts the so-called information highway. The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore states: ‘Mischief Night. In the traditional calendar of the 19th and 20th centuries, Mischief Night was the evening on which children across the northern counties thought they had the right to cause havoc with tricks and other misbehaviour… There is clearly a fine line, not always recognised by modern children, between naughty tricks and vandalism…’ Stone me, that’s supposed to be a reference book about folklore not a collection of sermons for outraged Daily Mail readers! The Yorkshire Dictionary of Dialect, Tradition and Folklore, while fittingly non-judgemental, isn’t altogether more helpful when it comes to nitty-gritty historical specifics, speculating that Mischief Neet may or may not be connected to Halloween, amongst other things. Online searches don’t clear up the confusion. Just like the famous Americanism ‘fall’ (for autumn), trick or treating could be an import that ironically originated on these shores – Mischief Neet was perhaps adapted by our migrant cousins over the Atlantic and sent back to proliferate toothache. Meanwhile, my guess that Mischief Neet’s high jinks were originally an imitation of the Gunpowder Plotters’ defiance seems to be as plausible as any. At least one historian hazards a similar proposition, even if history gets notoriously blurry when tackling the common people and their ways. However, the Yorkshire Dictionary accurately acknowledges that the whole Bonfire Night ritual owes a debt to the White Rose county, Guy Fawkes being one of its infamous sons.
Mischief Neet – a carnivalesque, northern tradition, then. Just as Yorkshire pudding is now a firm favourite on Sundays’ menus from Land’s End to John o’Groats, Mizzy Neet needs to be embraced the length and breadth of the land. In particular, the south-east has to get impish. It’d be a dazzling display to truly behold if the professional progeny of those who Fawkes wanted to blow to kingdom come felt the fiery, satirical sparks of our forgotten generation’s ire. Let those kids who once dreamily wrote their names in the air with sparklers now stuff bangers through the letterboxes of expensive, fashionable London pads and country retreats. Something has to wake up the expenses-fiddling, tax-dodging mob. Our millionaire’s cabinet couldn’t complain – they’ve been vandalising our country every day since they wheeled and dealed into power after failing to illuminate election day. Ah, that’s an entirely different sort of mischief, is it? You’re not kidding, kid.