Thursday 5 November 2015

Remembering, Remembering three quarters of a century of 5 November in Australia – Gillian Polack

I love the way special days change over time. I just asked my mother what 5 November was like when she was a child. “Nothing,” she said. “My mother said it was Christian.”

In Melbourne, Australia in the late 1930s and early 1940s there was something that happened around Guy Fawkes’ Day, but my mother and her family didn’t do whatever it was, had no idea what the historical event was, and only knew it didn’t relate to them. 

Our front garden (firework-free zone) and one of the cats we protected against the fireworks. Picture: Gillian Polack

I delved a bit further and we got to the bottom of it. When she was a child, anyone who was too far different to the English norm kept their differences at home. Differences were allowed and even encouraged (at times) just as long as they didn’t make it outside the private domain. She was acutely embarrassed when her grandfather made her eat a hot lunch, for everyone else had sandwiches, and she simply wasn’t part of any Guy Fawkes’ activities.

My father, ten years older, had fireworks (crackers mainly, I believe) and played pranks with them when he could. He was also Jewish, but far more Anglo. He got to share and he knew it was a history festival with a religious component rather than a religious festival that should be avoided. He was the one who taught me how to light fireworks, and his sister taught me the history behind the fireworks. It was my cousin David, on his side of the family, who was the member in our generation who got up to mischief with fireworks. 

My two parents were both Jewish (one still is!) but came from different backgrounds and that difference showed. When I was a child we ate the food of Dad’s family (standard Aussie fare) every day, but the food of Mum’s family for Jewish festivals. The best of both worlds.

If we had fireworks in Canberra on Guy Fawkes', this is where they'd be. Picture: Gillian Polack
For 5 November, we followed Dad’s culture, not Mum’s. We had fireworks. but no bonfire. Bonfires needed special permission, this being Australia and it being too close to bushfire season. One year one of my sisters and I found recipes for fireworks (I inherited the book with them and occasionally open the page longingly), and tried to persuade or parents that it was educational to make our own. “No,” was the firm ruling on that one. We had rockets and sparklers and a few of the glorious China-produced fountains. About ten minutes’ worth in all, for only sparklers and crackers were cheap. We didn’t get crackers for crackers were not good for the pets, and because crackers were the sort of thing that boys put in letterboxes. These days crackers are everywhere, especially around Chinese New Year, but in the sixties they were the cheeky cheap “good girls don’t play with these” firework. To make up for this, my sisters and I took the strips of papers from the little cap guns that were around and rubbed them with our shoes on the concrete and got nice explodey sounds that way. We were determined to make loud noises when we were little!

When I moved to Canberra, I brought some of that tradition with me. It’s not possible, though, these days, to have backyard fireworks. Fireworks need licenses here and now and can only be used at quite specific times of year. No more of the stories of blown-up postboxes or damaged children.
Guy Fawkes’ Night  is tonight and Canberra will do precisely nothing. Canberra always did less than Melbourne, though, for Canberra is a city with many Catholics (enough to have a large Catholic school system, where non-Catholics are not permitted to opt out of religious practice) and 5 November, as classically celebrated, is unkind to Catholics.

This change isn’t just in Canberra, though. It’s my great nieces and nephews who are old enough to be excited about fireworks and the Fifth of November rhyme. They’re not. They don’t even know it. If someone said “A penny for the guy,” they’d look blank. This week has been a combination of Halloween (borrowed from the US) and the Melbourne Cup. It’s easier to buy edible eyeballs than it is to buy sparklers today. The eyeballs are half-price, too, and have added squick factor.

This is absolutely nothing to do with the culture of my mother’s childhood, where she didn’t share a public engagement unless it was totally non-religious. The loss of Guy Fawkes’ Night isn’t even due to it supporting anti-Catholic sentiment, which is a bit of a surprise when you get down to it, because that would be a reason for halting a festival in a multicultural multi-religious society. No, it’s gone because the time of year really is shocking for Australia: we’re heading into bushfire season and don’t need extra sparks. Because fireworks are dangerous and most people aren’t taught how to use them safely any more. And it’s too close to the Melbourne Cup. It’s always been too close to the Melbourne Cup, but this was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Halloween, firework-forbidding, and Melbourne Cup: these are the things that lost us 5 November as a festive time.

I find it a touch ironic that the country everyone looks to for those glorious New Year fireworks over Sydney Harbour has lost its major festival of fireworks. Except that seventy years ago not all Australians celebrated it anyhow. My mother didn’t. 

pciture courtesy Wikipedia
Melbourne today

My part of Australia always had a watered-down version of 5 November. Only twice in my life have I seen bonfires. And we’ve never had guys. Now we’re not even pleased to remember it, except as a joke. Three people have made that joke to me this week. It’s about honest men and the Houses of Parliament. All of those three people live in Canberra, where so many politicians work. We’re terribly cynical about everything to do with politics here. And so the last joke lingers, when the fireworks have been forgotten.


catdownunder said...

Fireworks not allowed in South Australia - but they were there when I was a child. Our paternal grandfather would buy a few for us and we would have a small bonfire in the back garden. (My father would save the rubbish for this purpose). We used to beg potatoes from my mother to "bake". She would only give us very small potatoes - and somehow they were always black on the outside and raw on the inside.

Gillian Polack said...

That's wonderful - Melbourne and bonfires didn't mix (at least for us). I learned to wrap the potatoes in aluminum foil, to give them a chance of being cooked through. I later discovered that the best way of cooking them is in the ashes ie with no direct heat but much indirect warmth. About the time I discovered that, I also discovered that if you slit a banana down the middle and stuff it with chocolate then wrap it in foil potatoes are suddenly passe.

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