The morning of 6th November had always a sadness about it. The bonfire that had burned brilliantly the night before was a pile of grey ashes. If the night had been dry, a few embers might remain that would glow orange if you blew on them. It being November, there had probably been rain, or at least a heavy dewfall, and the powdery wood ash would stick to your shoes if you trod on it. The odd remnant of the Standard Fireworks would be found in the garden; the bright colours that had filled the box bought in a Somerton newsagent’s scorched black.
Bonfire Night was never a big deal; the fire was built from the dead cuttings from trimmed hedges and the pyrotechnics came one item at a time; one Roman candle, one Catherine wheel, one rocket, each of them was savoured. However ordinary in retrospect, the occasion was special at the time. Perhaps we were easily pleased.
Special moments in the year weren’t too frequent – Christmas; the annual village outing to Weymouth; going camping in Devon, the next county – but every one of them was remembered and pondered for long afterwards.
Perhaps the inflationary principles that apply to money, apply also to experiences. The more the money supply is increased, the less worth each banknote has. In a similar way, perhaps the more the supply of experiences is increased, the less memorable each of those experiences has.
On the other hand, perhaps the passing of the years has magnified memories, perhaps they did not occupy then the place they now occupy in the landscape of reminiscence. Maybe the memories remain clearly, but the moments themselves – with the exception of Christmas – were approached without a great sense of anticipation and were marked without a significant awareness they might be of the stuff that would be recalled decades later. There would have been no consciousness on those 6th November mornings that bonfire embers and spent fireworks might ever be worth being recalled.
Yet, whatever revisionism goes on in the mind, there was an intensity about past moments when travel and experiences were limited. Turning to the familiar words of E.L Carr’s A Month in the Country, one of the most atmospheric novels ever written, the “Sunday School Treat”again captures the imagination.
There was a throaty smell blowing off the bilberry shrubs and withering heather when we disembarked on a sheep-cropped plain high up in the hills. There was no shelter from the sun, but it was dinner-time and the women and girls unpacked hard-boiled eggs and soggy tomato sandwiches wrapped in greased paper and swaddled in napkins. It was Mr Dowthwaite (for you laboured for your prestige amongst the Wesleyans) who built a downbreeze fire of twigs and soon had tin kettles boiling. Then he struck up the Doxology and, when we’d sung it, we settled to some steady eating.
Afterwards, most of the men took off their jackets, exposing their braces and the tapes of their long woollen underpants and astonished their children by larking around like great lads. The courting couples sidled off, the women sat around and talked. So eating, drinking, dozing, making love, the day passed until evening came and the horses were led from their pasture. Then, as the first star rose and swallows turned and twisted above the bracken, our wagons rumbled down from above the White Horse and across the Vale towards home: the Sunday-school Treat was over.
We would have laughed at people recalling memories of going on an outing by horse and wagon and sitting in a field while children played games, just as a 21st Century generation would laugh at stories of a coach trip to Weymouth. There are moments as significant and intense for children today as were the special moments of the past, but perhaps in a landscape dotted with moments, the special ones are harder for the onlooker to discern.