Today would be Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night: light up the sky; remember, remember ... Only not here it isn't, or anywhere other than the UK, I presume. I was reading Dale's counter-blast to Halloween the other day (my purposeful blog revival has indeed meant that I'm keeping up better with other people's too), in revolt against the idea of seeing death and decay and horror, only too real and serious a matter, as subjects for fun, and the legitimising of playing with disguise and deception and fear.
I instantly found sympathy with the dissent from conformity with what the prevailing culture tells us we should and shouldn't join in with and enjoy, while at the same time I experienced a 'steady on, but where's the harm?' kind of reaction too. But no one should be obliged to go along with anything they have a strong objection or discomfort or revulsion about for fear of being considered a killjoy or lacking a sense of fun - 'where's your sense of humour?' was always the bully's evasion. It is important to question quite why we're observing a custom or festival, and not simply mouth the received ideas as a reflex. I suppose these are, that we need to confront our monsters, to dare death, to permit a degree of controlled misrule, all within a safe context, that those things are represented in a ritualised way that contains and puts them somewhere else, so, in Dale's words, you can go 'back to a world in which it's not true' (though, as he points out, 'there is no world in which it's not true'). Or, that it's simple community fun and creativity, now rendered innocent, harmless and well-supervised. This may be all be so, but it's still worth looking twice.
We didn't really mark Halloween much when I was growing up in the south of England, I don't know if that went for everywhere in Britain, perhaps Scotland and Ireland were different. We knew about it, and once when I was little my sister helped me make a witch costume, and painted horrid wrinkles on my face which was fun because I wasn't normally allowed to draw on myself. But there was no question of going out and about like that, the greengrocers' had yet to stock a pumpkin and we didn't get around to working out how to hollow out a turnip. Our Samhain, onset of winter, festival of lights was Bonfire, Guy Fawkes, Night, of which there were elements that could be conflated with Halloween. We received a certain amount of historical information about this event at school; it was stressed that attempts to blow up the king and parliament, or anyone really, were a Bad Thing and could not end well, but the Catholic/Protestant issue was only lightly touched on, as was the hanging, drawing and quartering, though it was probably where we first heard of it. The shudder and disgust at this could be allayed by the reassurance that was all a long time ago, we could turn back with relief to our world in which it was no longer true. Mostly though, our teachers were concerned with trying to put the fear of god into us about the misuse of fireworks and the horrific results thereof.
Knowing how poor Guido actually met his end, it was slightly puzzling that we made a model of him and burned it - it was witches that were burned wasn't it? Again, a bit of muddling of history. In fact, the burning of Guy Fawkes in effigy rather took over, I gather, from the more frequent burning of the pope, which was the usual way of partying on November the 5th for a couple of hundred years. They still do at the famous Lewes bonfire in East Sussex, though it's made clear it's Paul V, the one reigning at the time of the Gunpowder plot, in commemoration of some earlier Protestant martyrs, not the current one, and he shares the honour with various contemporary figures.
Our guy was made from old clothes, stuffed with straw and newspaper, a nasty yellow or orange papier maché mask from the news agents' shop. Other children carried their guys into the streets and sat them up and begged 'a penny for the guy'; I don't know if this still goes on, perhaps the possibility of allowing children out alone into the dark to importune strangers for money has fallen victim to the fear of other, more recognisable, monsters. But this aspect of extortion, of somewhat menacing, misruled children begging from adult citizens shares something with trick-or-treating. Later, when the latter custom appeared, many people were appalled by the idea of children being allowed to get sweets by the threat of violence or damage.
Anyway, the bonfire of old household and garden waste was lit well in advance just beyond the box elder tree, and my father and brothers, lit up ghastly orange in its light, carried the guy shoulder high and tossed him into the flames. We carefully chose our fireworks, kept indoors and brought out one by one with some ceremony, and lit them with tapers, never matches, the biggest rockets saved for last. I liked the pretty ones, the silver showers and golden rains and Christmas trees. Bangers I hated, though my brother liked them, probably because I hated them, and the rockets and catherine wheels were too unpredictable. Then we went in and ate baked potatoes and sausages in the kitchen.
Vivid memories, for sure, but treasured ones? I certainly enjoyed something of the heightened atmosphere, the element of danger and dark magic, of orange fire and black night, but there was also quite a bit of anxiety, our teachers' dire warnings did impress on me, though we would never have misused a firework, ever, and I was always worried about the animals, our cats and others, or the hedgehogs that might have crept into the bonfire. Also, the burning of the guy did trouble me, not because of any over-imagination of seeing him as a real human, but because the idea of burning our old clothes, and of destroying the work that had gone into making him, was disturbing. It was a kind of sacrifice, however unimportant, and I didn't take it altogether lightly, despite reassurance that it was all in order and permitted.
So, old unhappy far off things, sectarian hatred, historical violence, torture, the burning of effigies, people on the streets of a pretty south east town shouting 'Burn the Pope'! Merry England, happy times. Has it done me any harm, or has it enriched my experience? I don't know. I do still rather like the smell of fireworks, and the taste of baked potatoes. I dare say if there were a cricket club or some such with some fire works in walking distance, and maybe a pub, the King's Arms or whatever, with some good beer, I'd be there.
These days, living in a foreign land, with no children, most festivals and holidays and national commemorations have an opt-out clause for us. The kids here are beginning to get out and about on Halloween a bit, but it's very restrained, often they only really learn about it as part of their English classes; when the neighbours' children came just once a few years ago, they were at great pains to explain they weren't really witches and vampires, but just Sebastian and Sara, whom we knew, pas de souci. There's still a bit of disapproval of it, at the idea of demanding favours, but also I think, as creeping Americanisation, though there was in fact a tradition of it in western Brittany way back, according to Pêr Jakez Helias. The public holiday here is Toussaint, one of many retained religious days-off in this proudly secular and anti-clerical country. Everybody buys mountains of chrysanthemums and covers the cemeteries with them. They truly find a beauty in this, but I'm afraid for me it's rather spoiled the sharp, crisp autumnal odour and bronze starbursts of the chrysanths , since I seem to have fallen into the way of seeing them as inappropriate for anything but graveyards. Perhaps I should go out and buy a pot and reclaim my pleasure in them.
We used to trundle down the road for the 14 July fireworks, though not for the St Jean bonfire, but we don't bother now, largely because it means driving and parking and anyway, it really starts too late, what's the sense in having your bonfire and fireworks night at midsummer, for heavens' sake, when it's scarcely dark till midnight and the kids have to stay up till all hours? And yes, I have already received the retort, delivered quite seriously to my flippant remark, that Desmoulins and co were not thinking of that when they stormed the Bastille. Also, though, it's not our celebration; the first heads on pikes of the great decapitation fest, outside a nearly empty prison where there weren't any arms held after all, doesn't do much to move me to joy really, any more than the fate of Guy Fawkes should have done. And I still worry about the animals, the dog down the road left outside to bark in distress at the bangs and cracks in the distance, while his owners are off at the party.
Today would have been fairly useless for bonfires anyway, as it's rained all day. We aren't really allowed to have them at all any more, but most people in the countryside do from time to time. Thorny things and perennial weed roots have to be disposed of somehow. For other prunings, we have our splendid, still quite new shredder, and that's what I did today, turned a pile of branches and twigs and and leaves into wholesome mulch, under the shelter of our newly repaired barn roof.
There were some bay tree cuttings among them, so the resulting pot pourri had the sweet scent of a good potato soup.