IT’S all pumpkins these days, isn’t it? Pumpkins piled on top of each other on bales of hay at the front door; pumpkins artfully placed in shop window displays; candlelit pumpkins carved intricately and gruesomely. Squinter’s old enough to remember when nobody knew what a pumpkin was. Or perhaps the odd swot might have pointed out that it was a large squash native to north America, but not a single person had ever seen one in Belfast, much less been swamped by them in the local supermarket.
Turnips it was when Squinter was a boy, jagged teeth and ghastly eyes crudely hacked through the hard skin and harder flesh. A knife and a spoon were the available instruments, if not the preferred ones, because in truth it was a job for a Kango hammer. The spoon always ended up a Uri Geller job (at a time when spoons were real spoons) and the knife as blunt as a Free Presbyterian in a Falls black hack. There was never much room inside and it was never long before the inserted candle began to scorch the wonky lid, filling the room with an evil smell that would have made Old Nick himself retch and gag. What we wouldn’t have given for tealights.
Believe it or not, there was a smell worse than scorched turnip, a smell so vile and toxic that it would have cleared the camel house at Bellevue Zoo in 10 seconds flat. At a time when real fireworks were banned and harder to smuggle into the city than Semtex, indoor fireworks were the thing. The tiny items inside the garish cardboard box had exotic and awe-inspiring names – Cobra’s Eyes, Volcano Eruption, Tiger’s Tail, the Philosopher’s Flare – but as far as Squinter remembers they all did exactly the same thing: when you set fire to them they fizzled for a bit and then turned into worms. A collective shrug of the shoulders was soon followed by a nip of the nostrils and then by a bolt for the door, for the thin clouds of smoke the fireworks gave off were so foul, so eye-wateringly, chemically noxious that they’d have ended a Lenadoon riot quicker than a truckload of CS gas.
Now the real fireworks are back and the pyrotechnics are not to be seen on the kitchen table, but in the skies above the city as Nutts Corner specials bang and crack and whizz. The turnips are long gone, both as Halloween lanterns and as a staple food; now the only turnip a house ever sees is in a Mash Direct packet mixed in with carrot, for very few can be bothered to put in the work required to turn that rock-hard globe into something vaguely edible. And we’re left with pumpkins.
Squinter must admit that despite its drawbacks, he still has a soft spot for the plain old turnip. But he can see why the pumpkin has won its pre-eminence in the lantern stakes. It’s darned easy to work with for one thing – you could hollow one out with a lollipop stick in five minutes, for heaven’s sake. And while the orange, waxy shell holds it shape well, it’s eminently cuttable, which is why it is much favoured by those who fancy themselves as Halloween artists. Throw in a cheater kit and you can see why the lanterns these days are so very impressive.
A cheater kit? Well, yes, and you can get them anywhere. Just go to Sainsbury’s or Asda and ask for a pumpkin carving set and you’re good to go. What you’ll get is a series of tiny serrated blades of various length and width with finger-friendly plastic handles. Nothing wrong with that, but you’ll also get a collection of sharp plastic stencils that allow you to push through the pumpkin to cut out a shape in one fluid movement. That’s the cheating bit.
Shouldn’t be allowed, if you ask this Halloween veteran.