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Donkin's World: Chumping Week

Chumping Week

...I used to go off on chumping forays with my cousin Andrew. We would go equipped with rope for dragging logs. Hand-axes and bone-handled knives were shoved in our belts. No-one thought it odd that a couple of snitches in short pants should be wandering around with the sort of weapons that would get you arrested these days if carried in the street...

Richard Donkin bemoans the fact that bonfire nights are not what they once were.

Please visit Richard's entertaining Web site
http://richarddonkin.com/

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blood-Sweat-Tears-Evolution-Work/dp/1587990768/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1214554429&sr=1-2

When I was a kid I always loved the week before bonfire night. The whole week of half term would be spent collecting wood for our fire. We called it chumping round our way although I know it has many different local names.

I used to go off on chumping forays with my cousin Andrew. We would go equipped with rope for dragging logs. Hand-axes and bone-handled knives were shoved in our belts. No-one thought it odd that a couple of snitches in short pants should be wandering around with the sort of weapons that would get you arrested these days if carried in the street.

Many of the nearby mills were derelict so there were rich pickings in oil-soaked wicker baskets that always burnt well. My cousin lived near a railway and the Beeching cuts were going full steam so there was a good supply of old wooden sleepers that made excellent seats on which to eat your pie and peas before these too would be cast on to the fire.

If the bonfire was big enough, and particularly if someone had thrown out an old settee or upholstered chair, we might make a den. Either way we would rip out the back of the furniture with our knives, looking for old coins, usually old bun pennies, threepenny bits and farthings (people kept their furniture a long time in those days). A half crown was a bonanza while finding a silver threepenny bit was akin to uncovering an Anglo Saxon hoard. The only other time you might get one was in the Christmas pud and then it had to be given back for the next year's pudding.

Today, at least in the south of England, most of the bonfires are communal affairs. If you want to buy fireworks you are looking at maybe a 100 for five rockets, all to be handled safely away from all who are watching. Perhaps that's for the better, but I do look back with some nostalgia at the time I would go with my mum to the local store and choose my fireworks individually - a Roman candle here, a Catherine Wheel there. There would always be a "snow storm" and one of those crackly ones and inevitably there would be the bangers and jumping crackers.

When Gill was young, at their family bonfire someone would always tie a jumping cracker to the trouser leg of their neighbour who would pretend not to notice, then jump around in alarm when it was lit. My mother-in-law would happily throw her lit bangers in to the melee. Throwing bangers and squibs was not the pastime of delinquent youths. Everyone did it. Of course you had to hold your Little Demon carefully and throw it before the fuse burnt down. But all that was part of the excitement.

At one friend's bonfire, not far from my home, we would have gang battles, throwing fireworks at rivals trying to raid our chumps. I'm sure the casualty departments were full of injured children but the risk was something you were happy to live with - it was part of living.

Some of that life today has been stifled with well meaning regulations and safety laws. The family bonfire is not what it was. This year I have been invited to a dinner in London on November 5. Once this date would have been as sacrosanct as Christmas in the diary. Today it has been absorbed in to an increasingly colourless world.

Of course in our wealthy society we can stage breathtaking firework displays that light up the sky for miles around. But I wouldn't swap one of those expensive displays for our little bonfires all those years ago where real joy was a natter round the fire, a roast spud and a packet of sparklers etching glowing shapes in the crisp November night.

I was never that worried about a guy to burn on the fire. My mum thought that standing around asking for a "penny for the guy" was begging. But in Lewes, in East Sussex, they still take their effigy burning seriously only they burn the Pope as well as Guy Fawkes. In Lewes they continue to commemorate the 17 local Protestant Martyrs burned to death in the town in the reign of Queen Mary. "No Papery" signs in shop windows are not uncommon. Health and Safety has never quite made its mark in Lewes and the locals still parade with 17 fiery crosses.

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