Friday, 5 November 2010
Fire and fireworks
I wonder about Bonfire Night, I really do. I wonder how it started. I can’t believe that, even in the 1600s, ordinary English folk were so uncritically in love with their MPs that they consciously decided to dedicate a night every year to burning an effigy of the man who tried to get rid of them. I mean, we don't burn effigies of the Brighton bomber.
I suppose that people’s outrage stemmed less from the threat to the government, and more from the fact that Guy Fawkes tried to blow up St Stephen’s Hall, the symbolic home of popular liberties and rights. Also, from the terror of being taken over by the Catholic powers of Europe. These things could all make you afraid and angry enough to burn a man for centuries after he’s dead.
But probably it really started unconsciously, more by accident than design. An ancient festival happened to coincide with the biggest news of the year. What the Guy on the bonfire actually represented was a mixture of things: the man himself, the old year, the folk memory of a sacrificial king, an all-purpose Papist, a horrible foreigner. And because the Guy was a mixture of things, he was strong enough to survive. He always meant something to someone. As I think about him, he’s already starting to take shape as a possible character in a possible book in my head.
Nowadays, happily, Bonfire night means mostly good things to people, and especially to children. It’s the start of the long, wonderful slide down into Christmas. My mum and my husband complain at this time of year, they hate the evenings drawing in, but I have always loved it. It’s wonderfully portentous, witnessing the increasing power of the night. And it’s a perfect excuse for curling up; in a pub, with a book, in front of the TV, anywhere cosy and warm.
I like Bonfire night because it’s the ceremonial start of winter, the start of the magic and stories season. It's a time to feel the delight of a hot potato in cold gloved hands, to snuff up the smell of sparklers. It’s a time to stand close to someone you love and watch fireworks re-enact the Big Bang over and over and over. It’s a time for danger, too. My Bonfire night is haunted by the ghost of my mum’s childhood friend who had a firework explode in her face some time in the 1940s and died, only to revive as a wraithly story every November of my childhood. And that, too, is a possible book, or part of one.
So while you’re enjoying a happy and safe Bonfire night, don’t forget to keep an eye out for stories and characters – they’re everywhere at this time of year.