Sunday, November 05, 2006

Bonfire Night

Have you noticed how bonfire night has spread itself out over the last few years?

When I was a child bonfire night was just that: one night when we would gather in the back garden by a bonfire to watch a few spluttering fireworks before we went to bed. Occasionally we might be taken to an organised bonfire party in some large park somewhere, and watch a spectacular firework display from a roped off space, an agonising distance from the source of heat, while zealous fire-fighters roamed about looking efficient, making sure everything was safe. That was never very much fun, being far too safe (and cold) for any real pleasure.

But otherwise this was how it was. Rushing home from school full of excitement and expectation. Baked potatoes. Toffee apples. A box of fireworks that my Dad would ignite with manly glee. Hot chocolate for the kids. Beer for the adults. Sparklers that could write your name in the darkness. A flaming Guy. Sparks that danced like brief angels in the night air. The stinging smell of smoke. Warm woolies, cold noses, and an inability to sleep afterwards as other people's bonfire parties stretched on into the night. And we would watch and listen out of our bedroom window as the screaming surge of rocket-trails became gothic arches supporting the sky.

These days it all goes on for weeks. We have become gluttons for our own busy entertainment. It starts several days before Halloween, and ends usually some days after November the 5th.

Of course, bonfire night is a specifically English 17th century State-sponsored festival commemorating the victory of the Protestant Parliament against the Catholic opposition. In fact it is the commemoration of a failed act of terrorism, in celebration of which we burn an effigy of a Catholic. It would be like, in the aftermath of 9-11, holding a bonfire party in which we burnt an effigy of a Muslim. Which would be funny, if it wasn’t so plausible these days.

There are two major November the 5th parties in the UK: one in Lewes in East Sussex, celebrating the victory of parliament in which they have been known to burn an effigy of the Pope; the other, in Bridgewater in Somerset, which marks a day known as “Black Friday”, on the nearest Friday to November the 5th. The story goes that the supporters of the plot had set up beacons across the country which were to be lit if the act was successful. Unfortunately for the people of Bridgewater a nearby beacon was lit accidentally, so they went to bed on the Thursday believing that the plot was a success. It was on the Friday morning that they heard the bad news: hence the name “Black Friday”.

The Bridgewater party takes the form of a carnival, which processes though many of the West Country towns in the succeeding weeks.

The word "bonfire" may be a reference to "bone-fires", the burning of animal bones sacrificed to the gods in celebration of the turning seasons. Animal bones are full of fat and would sizzle and crack before they exploded. This would have been the Neolithic equivalent of a firework display, sending dangerous hot sparks high into the night air to mingle with the stars, and bone-shrapnel into the crowds.

Although in England we have moved the date to suit the anti-Catholic propaganda element, it is really an ancient festival recognising the coming of winter. It's historic date is October 31st, All-Hallows Eve, also known as Samhain. Traditionally it is the Celtic New Year, and was always celebrated with fire, with apples, and - possibly, in the dim and distant past – with some form of sacrificial offering. Hence the Guy.

It is the night that the dead roam.

In Scottish households an extra place would be laid at table to welcome the ancestors. And for all of you who think that Trick or Treat is an American invention: it is not. It's origins lie in the Celtic fringe. People would don disguises so that the visiting dead could mingle freely, and feel welcome in our midst. Who knows whose face it was behind the mask? Was it Uncle George just fooling around? Or Great Uncle Albert, long since deceased, longing to share the warmth of life with the living again?

Clearly this is a remnant of that most ancient religion: the cult of the dead, the worship of the ancestors, a religion which still has a huge, if mainly underground, following throughout the world.

In Romania, on All Hallows Day, the community gather in the graveyard with candles to celebrate the dead. Prior to that the graves will have been prepared, with fresh flowers and a makeover. On the night there is a hushed atmosphere of reverence, as people quietly commune with the departed, long-gone into the other world. Voices are subdued, candle-flames flicker over faces deep in contemplation, and the atmosphere is electric with expectation, as the quiet ghosts enter the world of the living for a night, and share secret whispers of grief with their loved-ones.

The blazing fire has it's roots in our most ancient form of science too, sympathetic magic: the theory that like creates like. The fire is lit in commemoration of the Sun, whose waning light at this time of year was felt grievously by our ancestors, and it's fierce light was meant to give encouragement to its return. As if the Sun had a personality, and could be appealed to in this way.

Well we can scoff now at such simple notions, while we enjoy the festivals as mere passing entertainment. But it is worth remembering that our ancestors were just as brainy as we are. And while they may not have understood completely the workings of our Universe (how many of us do either?) yet in many ways they had a greater understanding of our place within nature, and a greater respect for the planet on which we enact our petty dramas.

Maybe they have something to teach us yet. Who knows?


Following is a story I wrote for the Whitstable Times published on the 28th November 2002.

It wasn’t what I was intending. I hadn’t come to this obscure English village to attend a bonfire party. But after a day of panting for breath and sense in a stuffy upstairs room in the Eversley village church hall, listening to a lecture on electro-magnetic therapy and quantum physics, this was where we found ourselves at last: taking the night air, feeding from the crowds, drinking in the atmosphere.

Where’s Eversley you ask? It’s in Hampshire. As for the electro-magnetic therapy and the quantum physics: don’t ask. It makes my head hurt just thinking about those things, let alone sitting in a stuffy lecture theatre hearing about them.

Quantum physics is that branch of science that suggests that the universe is just a pulsating illusion, and that we, as observers, influence what it appears to be. It’s like Buddhism with spirit-levels and particle accelerators.

I said don’t ask.

But back to the bonfire party:

There was me, Stuart, and two of his daughters.

At the time Stuart was in the process of setting up a business to sell the electro-magnetic therapy. I can’t remember the daughters’ names because he has four of them and their names all begin with ‘T’. So it’s Tara, Tasmin, Tori and Teija. Or is that Titania, and Tripe and Toad and Tippex?

Just four fierce, bright girls like jewels, with similar name but with entirely different personalities; and I have two of them sitting at my feet right now, watching as the flames leap and shimmy into the night air, as the smoke swirls and eddies and the sparks rise like doomed fire-flies casting flickering night-time shadows across the expectant faces of the crowd.

There’s something primeval about a bonfire party. It seems to call on something deep and ancient in the human heart. Maybe it’s a racial stirring of some sort: a replay of old dreams from a time before our awakening, a calling of memory.

You think of the huge bone-fires of the ancients, on the nights when the dead walk, when the veil between the worlds is lifted, and the spirits come and join the party.

Or maybe it’s more recent than that: just the memories of childhood and our own modest bonfire parties in the back garden with the family.

Whatever. Bonfire night always seems to set a spark in my imagination.

After that the fireworks start. All those surges of light. The booms, the cracks. The sizzling intensity. The temporary architecture of light in the night sky, like gothic arches etches against the stars. People are oo-ing and ah-ing in the time-honoured tradition.

One of the girls – Tori, is it? Or Toad? – says, “why are people saying that?”

“It’s cos it’s what they’re supposed to do,” says Stuart, with a slightly mocking laugh.

But we all feel it, as our hearts ride up with those rockets, - high, high, higher, right up, right up – as our neck’s strain back, and the fierce light surges and then explodes in an iridescent crackle of intensity. Oo, we think. Ah! And then we laugh at ourselves in a slightly mocking way, knowing we are all the same.

The firework display is spectacular, and worth every penny of the entrance fee. It ends on a crescendo as fifteen rockets mount and then explode all at once in a hail of light like starburst, and then silence as night descends once more, and people begin to make their way home.

Stuart is disappointed. He says, “that should be the beginning, not the end.” And he imagines a place where the drummers are thudding, and where we all spend the night by the fire dancing on our bones and sending our thoughts like fireworks into the sky.


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