surinenglish

BRIT BACK

Tradition

Whizz. Whoosh. Bang! Last weekend the customary peace of the English countryside in autumn was punctured by explosions and the darkness of the night skies around us filled with trailing fluorescent stars.

November 5th is one of the most popular and enduring of British traditions. Nothing much has changed since I was a child - the local stately home still holds its Big Night Out firework display, the neighbouring village has a bonfire made from pallets on the green and those with even the smallest gardens gather together to fire off a few rockets. One new feature is the stringent health and safety regulations regarding the buying of fireworks - this year we bought just one packet of sparklers from a locked glass box at the entrance to a supermarket and were ordered to leave the store immediately once we'd paid. That incident made me recall visiting the central square in Riogordo one New Year's Eve and bemusedly witnessing a family group setting fireworks off on the main road through the village and then running for cover as cars came round the corner to find rockets flying in front of them...

Just before the uniquely British Guy Fawkes' Night comes Halloween, which is now a huge commercial event here with plastic pumpkin containers of sweets on every bar and cafe counter, buckets for trick or treating and children dressed up as characters from popular computer games rather than the witches and wizards of my youth. In Spain too Halloween has become a giant fancy dress party. When we lived in the Axarquía one year we spurned the blood soaked revellers roaming the streets of Malaga and went to Casabermeja cemetery, perched on the side of a hill and famed for its oval shape and simple whitewashed beauty. While outside in the gloom families decked the tombs of their deceased loved ones with flowers and candles, we crammed into the tiny chapel and listened to a chamber orchestra. It was a wonderfully atmospheric evening.

While I don't like Halloween these days, I still love Bonfire Night. One of the pleasures of moving back to a place I last lived as a child is rediscovering and discovering local traditions. Recently we went to a festival of sea shanties in Harwich, a town which has a long, fascinating history of sea faring, shipbuilding and piracy. Among the musicians singing the old tunes, many of which featured places on the East Anglian coast - Orford Ness, Felixstowe and Great Yarmouth among others, was a group of young guys from Barcelona who seemed completely at home as they gripped pints of ale in a centuries-old pub by the North Sea.

In the late summer we went to an event in mid Suffolk where wheat was being threshed traditionally using a coal-fired steam engine which powered a shaking piece of historic agricultural machinery. With wonderful synchronicity on the very same day, Riogordo was hosting a rural feria where the grain harvest was also being threshed the old way, using a wooden board pulled in circles by a mule over the laid out crop.

Ancient traditions we all have, but many we share.