Monday, 2 November 2009

Pennies from Heaven.

penny for the guy, originally uploaded by mrpattersonsir.

Oops, here we go. The pixel ink is barely dry on my review of Belle Vue #2 and I'm already lurching into nostalgia myself. Ah, well, I did say so...

When was the last time you saw a kid, like this Glaswegian street urchin above, doing Penny For The Guy? Going, "Penny For The Guy?". Whatever happened to kids stuffing old clothes with newspaper, sticking a Halloween mask on it, dragging it down to the local shops to do a bit of good old begging for money to buy fireworks, before committing the Guy to the bonfire. On bonfire night. Not the weekend before or the weekend after, and not as some joint Halloween/Bonfire Night 'extravaganza' organised by some bunch of money-grabbing, safety-jacket wearing, stand behind the line, men with moustaches.

What used to be a random collection of street-focussed celebrations of pyromania, preceded by weeks of dragging bits of timber, old settees, cardboard boxes etc onto the local croft and punctuated by rumours of raids from other streets' kids, all armed with paraffin and matches of course, is now completely neutered and drifting into obscurity. It's not that we didn't light fires all year round anyway, it's more that this was the one time the adults condoned it. Although there was usually one Dad (always a Dad) who took it upon himself to light the bonfire according to his timetable, and not to that of the kids who had spent all their recent post-school hours scavenging and stockpiling wood and who had gone home to get their tea before coming back to find their work reduced to beautifully-glowing ashes.

At one point you could wander the streets of any major city on Bonfire Night and encounter any number of bonfires in various settings - back gardens, sports fields, school grounds, crofts. Nowadays, you get the odd organised fire, but even they are dying off. The availability of Apocalypse Now-level public display fireworks from the local paper shop and the commerce-driven, sugar-sweet pull of Halloween has meant the B of the Bang of Bonfire Night is spread over a longer time and no longer focussed on November Fifth.

Anyhow, the last time I saw a kid doing Penny for the Guy was outside Shalimar Stores, opposite Salford's lumpy Cathedral. It was about five years ago. The site behind Shalimar was also the last time I saw a random, roadside, disorganised community bonfire. The wood had been building up there for days before the final act on the fifth, I passed it every day on my way into work. This week, I'm still making the same journey, but the local kids are no longer dragging, stacking and guarding piles of wood and settees.

Thanks to mrpattersonsir for the beautiful photograph.


  1. Perhaps we have run out of scrap wood. Perhaps the credit crunch cutbacks of the usual DFS shoppers means there are no bad settees out there to drag to the fire. Perhaps the fire brigade’s yearly message to school children has finally sunk in – the one where we must remember not to crawl into the middle of a huge bonfire and fall asleep.

    I have seen two Penny for the Guy camps though. The first was in Crawly last weekend. A twosome of thirteen year olds doing their bit for cultural diversity (the guy was very, very short and of no human colour). I ignored them and walked away with my wholemeal bread.

    The second was outside Sommerfield (now the Cooperative) in Edgeley. Two traditional street urchins with the guy propped up against the discount freezer shop wall. If I did the same thing I’d be begging, if I’m still at school I’m a cheeky scamp. Also, what would they do if I gave them a penny? Would I be verbally abused and laughed at. What if they get enough pennies to buy fireworks from the local ‘buy your massive, imported explosives here’ shop? That’s another fire safety advert etched on my brain. The one where somebody pretty turns round and shows they only have half a face.

    We did have fireworks once when I was little, they were kept in the obligatory empty quality street tin and only one was taken out at a time. We watched from the backroom window as my dad lit them in the back yard. I think we are now a generation of adults that have so many scare stories from the 70s and 80s about fire that the old fashioned wood collecting and making a Guy just isn’t a tradition passed down through the generations any more.

  2. To be honest, I'm much more pro-bonfire than I am pro-fireworks. It's more democratic, and you can bake potatoes on a fire. You have to buy fireworks, you can do a bonfire for free.