Thursday, November 05, 2015

Bonfire night

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.


Sabine said...

I think it's all about the light, the fire. The rest is a mixture of being hijacked by the church(es) and political/commercial agendas.

The light of a bonfire, a lantern, fire works at this time of year in our hemisphere is a beautiful reassuring event. I find it quite moving. The rest, well, toss.

Here, in the predominantly catholic Rhine valley, we have St Martin's lantern parades, where primary school and kindergarden kids walk on or around 12th of Nov (feast of St Martin) in a parade carrying home made paper lanterns (real candles) singing special songs and following "St Martin", usually a local fireman on horseback, all the way to a huge bonfire. After an hour or so, St Martin on his horse jumps across the embers and the kids go from door to door singing and showing off their lanterns and get sweets in return. Of course, this also goes way back to pagan times but the religious angle of sharing like Martin did - he cut his coat in half to share it with a beggar - is quite acceptable.

Lucy said...

Sabine - thanks for reading and commenting. I really like that one in fact, and as you say, the saint's story is quite a good one too. I remember now the children at the Steiner (Waldorf) school where we lived in Devon used to do that procession, with the little coloured paper lanterns, at that time. There was a very little element of danger also, as the paper coloured with wax crayon was quite inflammable! The horse jumping the embers must be quite exciting too. We spent Christmas in the Rhine valley one year, I must say, without any real knowledge of the history or how things are with it now, I found the religious culture quite aesthetic and sympathetic, more so than the Catholic stuff here mostly.

It is good, I think, at this early stage of winter, to get out and about and do something cheery. I do like the orange glow in the dark, and if I happen to have a pumpkin to hand still make a lantern sometimes, and people do make some wonderful ones. When we first came here none of the older neighbours knew anything about it, and assumed we were lighting up early for Christmas. Other more right-on traditionalists in opposition to Halloween tried to revive the mardi gras carnival as an alternative pretext for kids to to dress up, but it hasn't taken off much.

Zhoen said...

All about how you celebrate it, thoughtfully is probably best. Commercially least. Halloween was one that felt personal, no going visiting grandmothers, no Mass, no obligations, just dressing up and facing fears and getting candy. Conversely, it was for everyone. Today, it's a chance to be generous with neighborhood children, which is nice.

Fireworks were for the 4th of July, so unrelated. I'd love a bonfire night, but in this area it would be both an immense fire hazard, and source of lingering smoke pollution, sadly.

the polish chick said...

"It is important to question quite why we're observing a custom or festival, and not simply mouth the received ideas as a reflex." - wise words that can and should be applied to so many things society does. the reflexive and thoughtless consumption. the hungry desire for more and more renamed as needs and rights. i think we should live thoughtfully and question far more than we do.

the big bonfires of my childhood were, as you said too, to deal with the prunings and such from the gardens. it became a communal thing, and we'd each bring potatoes to bury in the ashes at the end of the fire, to bake and then get eaten with butter and salt. no potato baked in an oven comes close to that smoky hot charred flavour of an ash-baked one.

we had a discussion here about new year's fire works - some people felt that setting them off at midnight penalized the little children who wouldn't be able to stay up to watch. personally (and i was hardly alone) i rolled my eyes at this notion. not everything has to be family friendly, and the new year comes at midnight, not at 8pm. children can either wait until they're older (the idea of waiting for something, of deferred gratification, might be highly unpopular, but it brings its own pleasure, does it not? by taking away anticipation, we're taking away so much!), or they can stay up that one night. i guess i was offended that once again people expect everything to be shifted around to their perceived needs and rights.

on a more positive note, i adore fireworks. i could watch them every day and never get tired, although i'm well aware of the air quality repercussions.

Roderick Robinson said...

You've been getting ahead of me, the reasons being threefold. The first and most obvious being your self-evident fecundity which just shows what you can do when motivated... by what? Second I've been in an increasingly furious relationship with my AV provider whose HQ I discover (to my horror) is in the Russian Federation. Thirdly I've been nervously preparing for our first viewing and hearing of Wagner's Tannhäuser; both us felt we really could not go into this like shorn lambs (it actually took place on Saturday night so by now the ordeal is over and I'll have more to say about this on Tone Deaf soon) and we decided do a little research. The opera is about sacred and profane love which was no great comfort, neither of us being sure we'd ever been exposed to either of these extremes.

As to the Lewes bonfires the citizens do well to excuse themselves with hair-splitting about the Pope. Some years ago the BBC News did a small piece suggesting that they continued to take the event far too seriously, and a clip from this years's march through the town revealed a highly detailed guy in period costumne, hands tied behind and swinging from a gibbet. Only in constituencies with a Tory majority... except that it's been Lib Dem until recently.

Lucy said...

Thanks again.

Z - Dressing up in particular seems to be such an enjoyable, needful thing for people, especially kids. And, as I say, getting out and meeting and greeting at this time is good, before one turns inward completely for the winter.

PC - Absolutely. In fact, looking back, that there were times, like New Year, when there was an adult world going about things of which sleep rendered me unconscious, but which I would one day come into, was quite exciting in itself, as was being able to stay up late on special occasions later. I've never been a great party animal really, and nowadays I can't really do late nights - I've never been able to keep up with the French on their all-nighters - but nocturnal life is something everyone has periods of at some time in one form or other. Fireworks are rather marvellous, we had some great ones in London in the eighties, under Ken Livingstone's GLC... There's a bit in 'Mrs Miniver', one of my favourite books, where she remarks that they're the art form that has least resemblance to its original materials, who would have thought that cardboard tubes and grey powder could transform into what they do. Home fireworks are fairly prohibitively expensive now, and people worry about the danger, and misuse so much that the big displays are a better bet. Till recently at least you could still buy them in big trashy shops here, just at toddler head height alongside the sweets, and people loved to chuck them freely around the streets on Bastille Night. Not sure if that's changed too now, though.

Robbie - I lived near Lewes in my youth but for some reason never went to, or even knew of, the bonfire. Tory constituency or not, one of this year's effigies was of David Cameron, with mandatory, and IMO somewhat overworked, pig's head. I look forward to hearing about Tannhauser. Wot no sacred or profane love? You are surely too modest.