November
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{ 103 } 62. BONFIRE NIGHT It was the time of feast and fire. Wind had lashed the last leaf from ash and maple, and wood pigeon had found their autumn flocks. In the field, cold men in camouflage waved flags and stumbled towards woods where hid the guns. If pheasants had evolved an alarm run, they might escape. But they have not. The land echoed to crack and thump. A flock of rooks sang safe stories in a bare poplar. Still in hedgerow were fennel and hogweed, blackberries gone to dust. Old folklore says red hips and haws promise winters cold and long. This day, rain fell heavily. There could be disappointment, yet at evening all was dry. Families converged on the village playing field. Smoke billowed from barbecue, steam from pans of mulled wine. Children waved sparklers and skipped, neon bands fused to necks and wrists. Villagers shared the latest news. Only a week after the clocks had changed, seven before Christmas, all had gathered to remember a failure to bomb Parliament. But long lingers confusion: Is Guy Fawkes Day about attempt or foiling? The bonfire crackled, wood smoke swirling up towards the cloud. Up went the fireworks, primary bang, secondary swish, fancy pop, and stars cast across the heavens. Rockets arched high, children cried woo, others clapping hands over ears and running to the village hall to peer from behind glass. How glittering lights grip the imagination, cities at night offering safe destination and hope. Many are the ways to claim local territory: beating the bounds, mud race, cheese rolling, pilgrimage, farmers’ market, horse fair, vegetable competition. By being builders of common culture, participants and spectators assert identity. Some are rare: carnival , street party; some long gone: people of the east no longer strap up heavy skates to glide on frozen fen and icy dike. The end was sudden and sad. There was a ripple of applause, the burgers and hot dogs now half price. Someone threw a firework on the fire, the rocket shooting sideways at nearby houses. There was dark muttering. Figures ambled to the NOVEMBER { 104 }     The East Country bonfire, their faces savage in the flickering flame. Gradually groups dispersed to warm houses and delayed homework, the playing field quiet again. “Ashes do not come to firewood,” wrote Dōgen Zenji. Next year will be another mound of wood and waste to burn, the people gathering again. 5 63.  AT FIRST, SILENCE The valley was capped by cloud. Essex had been cut off, over river. Leaves covered lawns, evidence of hard winds. The trees were still. Oak had begun to turn, tingeing russet, others dipped in gold. At the top of Clicket Hill two were resolute, each year the valley’s last to succumb. This winter they could be green come January. In hedges tumbled with old man’s beard, songbirds were quiet; in skies nothing flew through the heavy air. A marble egret rose on wide wings, And drifted slowly down. In a shady orchard, sheep lay sleeping. The day started gray, dimmed, and got dark. On two days, two minutes’ human silence were observed for the fallen. Long before, St. Martin’s Eve was for a rural reckoning, animals slaughtered and salted, the final fresh meat until spring. Tales were told at feasts to fend off darkening nights; many thought of St. Martin as patron of the drunkard. Yet slowly the valley seemed to waken. Sounds emerged. A flock of rooks was in the wheat stubble, rising as flakes of chattering charcoal. At the four corners by sugar beet windrows, two of John Rix’s men were standing at the harvester, its working life stilled. Above was the liquid song of skylark, streaming memories of spring. Hoy, we saluted, they shouted back. On the misty top by the TV masts, top lamps blinking red, high-voltage lines leaked electrons in a telegraphic buzz. Where previously had been strutting pheasants was only silence. Twenty million reared and released each year. A horse thudded across a paddock, stamping to a halt. It turned away. A tall woman walked a sleek black dog. On an open stretch, a sparrowhawk circled, swooping up to a bare ash. Standing later in the garden; autumn insects came too: bumblebee in hollyhock, wood wasp by the fence, a swarm of ladybird awake from hibernation. Hyacinth were sprouting, buds might burst of azalea. Mrs. Paine’s geraniums were richly { 105 }     November scarlet, Cedric Morris’s pale pink also in flower. All the...