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Trafalgar Square on Bonfire Night

It so happened that on the 5th of November, late in the afternoon I called round at my friends' place intending to spend the evening with them. I had a box of fireworks under my arm and in the car a couple of rickety old kitchen-chairs. The latter, I thought, would do well for the fire we would build in my friends' back garden. I knew that John, their 10-year-old son, had a very good guy. I had seen him in the streets within those last few weeks, asking for the usual "Penny for the Guy". Thus, I concluded, the boy must have a nice lot of fireworks by now, and we would have a thoroughly good time burning the guy on our bonfire and setting off scores of fireworks.

Engrossed in pleasant contemplations, I rang the bell. It was some time before I heard the sound of footsteps in the hall, then the door was flung open and ... I gasped. The tall man who confronted me was surely some queer vagabond. He was dressed in a most picturesque manner: a pair of worn-out baggy trousers, an equally old checked Norfolk jacket of a cut probably worn somewhere around the 18th century, a red rag carelessly tied round his neck, an enormous hat, pulled well over the eyes, completing the picture. It was only when the man smiled and a familiar voice said: "Come on in, won't you," that I recognized Bill. "I didn't know you went in for amateur dramatics," I said while he was helping me off with my coat. "I don't. We are going up to Trafalgar Square. I suppose you might as well come, too. It'll be an experience for you. But we must find you something suitable to wear."


In the sitting-room I found Bill's wife, Margaret, and George and Mary, their next-door neighbours: all similarly clad in rags. Margaret told me that John had been sent to her sister's, so he would have his bonfire night there. He had taken his fireworks, but not the guy; there was one there already. John's guy, as he was a particularly good one, had been taken up into the loft, ready for the following year. Of course, that was a highly irregular thing to do, but Margaret said she had got quite attached to it, and it would break her heart to part with it. Next I had that dressing-up business explained to me. It turned out that if you went to Trafalgar Square on the 5th of November you had to wear clothes which you were prepared to discard afterwards, for you would get as black as a chimney-sweep, to say nothing of the holes which fireworks would burn in your garments.

While we were fortifying ourselves with cups of strong tea before setting out on our journey, Margaret was rummaging through the drawers and the wardrobe trying to find something for me to wear. Unfortunately, she had already helped George out with an old hat and coat, so it was eventually decided that Bill should go up into the loft, and borrow some of the guy's clothes. This he did rather too willingly and soon came down with a fantastic-looking trilby, a coat and an old pair of jeans. All these I put on amid roars of laughter. I must admit, I felt a little apprehensive at first, lest the neighbours should recognize me, or rather the guy, when we walked down to the station. But George assured me that there was no danger of that since we would go up to town in his car. Indeed, a few minutes later we were safely on our way to London.


It took us slightly under an hour to reach the "approaches" to Trafalgar Square. We parked the car, not without difficulty, and joined the steady stream of people who were moving in the direction of the square. As we drew nearer we began to distinguish crackling noises. Obviously, they had already started setting off fireworks. On and off there was a heavy explosion which sounded as if a bomb had come down. These were followed by loud cheering and screams.

Now and then some policeman blew his whistle. The square was already in sight, but I could not make out much because of the tall man who was walking in front of me. Suddenly, however, he turned off, went up to a lamp-post and began to climb it, very expertly. There were a few cheers from the onlookers and a clatter of applause. I thought all this rather odd, but the next thing I saw astonished me even more. A yard or so away there was another lamp-post with literally bunches of people hanging from it like some strange enormous grapes. A lonely bobby stood below trying to persuade them to come down while the jeering crowd which surrounded him was not very politely telling him to mind his own business, which I thought was precisely what he was doing. Now and again some man or woman would try to get to the lamp-post, but, the bobby stood his ground firmly, and threw the offenders, without much ado, right back into the ranks of the crowd. All the other lamp-posts further down were similarly occupied. In some cases the policeman had managed to get hold of an ill-starred climber and was pulling at his leg or coat as hard as he could, while those above tried to pull the fellow up, out of the bobby's reach.

On entering the square we found that we had lost George. We looked back. Somebody who was sitting almost astride the nearest lamp-post waved to us and shouted something undistinguishable. "Smalltimer!"* murmured Bill, "Us for the column, eh?" We nodded, doubtfully. After that we battled for about half an hour through the thick crowd which surrounded Nelson's Column.** At last we reached the front rows, none the worse for the experience, with the exception of a few bruises and some holes made by fireworks in our clothes.

* (Smalltimer - (coll.) a person who does not aim very high, who is not very ambitious and who has not succeeded in business, etc.)

** (Nelson's Column - Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square, London, 184 ft high and surmounted by a statue, was completed in 1843; the four bronze lions by Landseer were added in 1867. Nelson - Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), a British naval commander; destroyed Napoleon's fleet in the Abukir Bay (1798); oppressed the republic activities in Italy (1799); defeated Napoleon in the battle of Trafalgar (1805), in which Nelson was mortally wounded.)

Earlier on the whole monument had been surrounded by the police but they had already been forced to retreat and surrender the lions which were how occupied by the jubilant public. The policemen were now guarding the holy of holies, the column itself, and their faces showed grim determination. Strategically they were in a better position than the public; they stood on the pedestal on which this magnificent 184-foot-high column rests, thus several feet above the rest of the people and any dare-devil who cherished dreams of having at least a try at ascending the column, would have to get onto the pedestal and break through a double chain of police before he reached the foot of it. On the other hand, the public had the advantage of sheer numbers.

When we arrived on the scene, both sides were still more or less in good humour. From the public people shouted to the policemen telling them to come down from their ivory tower, occasionally a few fireworks were thrown at the bobbies which the more sporting of them threw right back into the crowd. Again and again groups of men tried to break through the police, but without success. Gradually tempers began to run high. Now and then you could see a policeman being pulled down the pedestal, where somebody had managed to get hold of his legs. His mates, naturally, would come to his aid trying to pull him back while below a whole bunch of people would be hanging on to him, determined not to let go. The number of policemen milling about among the public increased greatly as time went on, and when, after watching the battle for the monument for an hour or so and deciding that it was hardly likely that someone would manage to climb it, we worked our way out of the crowd, we noticed a number of Black Marias* standing by ready to rush off,to the police-station anyone who should let his bad temper get the better of him. Indeed, in a while we saw some policemen coming along with the first victims.

*

(Black Maria - (coll.) a covered police van used for conveying prisoners to or from a prison or the court of trial.)

We walked round a little watching lamp-post battles and listening to the exchange of witticisms and insults, and then decided to go and look for George. By the time we found him, still astride the lamp-post, he must have grown tired of sitting there, for he came down readily enough, to the great satisfaction of the constable who stood nearby. By now the crowd in Trafalgar Square began to disperse and we thought it wise to make our way back to the car. It took us some time to reach it. We got in. Margaret produced the thermos-flask she had brought along and we had the best cup of tea we had ever tasted: what with shouting and the smcke from the fireworks our throats were parched.

As George wanted to avoid the traffic-jam, we drove back to the square to see whether everything was over. The square was empty. Several street-sweepers were moving about with small hand-carts into which they were collecting lost shoes, gloves, bags, hats and so on. A small police-van still stood by the curb, but as we approached, it moved off. All was over. Nelson's Column stood lonely and deserted in the centre of the square: nobody wanted to ascend it any more - the Walpurgis Night* had come to an end with the first crow of the cocks. Feeling pleasantly sad we walked back to the car and soon were on the road home.

* (Walpurgis Night - so called after Walpurga, an 8th-century saint; in Germany her festival is May I, and the eve of the festival, called Walpurgis Night, coincides with the old pagan May festival, when witches were said to assemble on mountains, notably the Brocken or Blocksberg, to riot in the company of demons and worship the devil in a witches' sabbath.)

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