Bonfire of the Inanities

Having survived the potential horrors of Halloween on Friday without so much as a knock at the door, last night I went to see the fireworks, organized by the local Round Table, in Bute Park, near my home in Cardiff. According to the website, this was to be “one of the largest firework events in the UK, with a spectacular display of pyrotechnics, a bonfire to behold, on-stage entertainment from a series of famous artists, as well as fun fair rides, food stalls and many other family attractions.”

I should have guessed that the “series of famous artists” would be a bunch of failed wannabes from TV talent shows like X-factor and that their primary purpose would be to delay the actual fireworks as long as possible while the audience stood in the pouring rain. The last of them – a dreadful brother-and-sister combination called Same Difference – spent less time singing than they did telling people how to download their new single from the net a whole day before it would be in the shops.

When the fireworks eventually started, quite a few of them seemed not to work properly. Perhaps they were wet through like the spectators were. If so, I now know the meaning of the phrase “a damp squib”. At least we got a good blast of Shirley Bassey by way of musical accompaniment, so it wasn’t all a disaster. After the last whizz-bang had whizzed and banged we trudged back through the muddy fields to Pontcanna where I cooked supper at home for a few friends.

The occasion for the fireworks is of course Guy Fawkes’ Night, which celebrates the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 which intended to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Guy Fawkes was supposed to light the blue touchpaper on that occasion and it has been a tradition to burn his effigy on the bonfire on the anniversary of the attempt, every November 5th, while letting off fireworks.

When I was young, this was the thing we celebrated rather than Halloween. Most families held their own bonfire in their garden and fireworks could easily be bought from local shops who stocked up at this time of year. Since we had the Spinney in front of our house, we had very big bonfires in Benwell which lots of other kids came to. The number of private bonfire parties has decreased markedly since then owing to safety concerns and they have largely been replaced by large scale organized celebrations, such as the one in Cardiff last night. The plus side of this is that you get better fireworks (generally speaking), but the downside is the perceived need to add unnecessary frills like the awful pop concert we had to endure. I think Cardiff City Council’s notorious Events Department probably played a part in adding the tackier embellishments to Bonfire Night in Bute Park.

The other drawback with municipal fireworks parties is that they have resulted in a drift away from November 5th itself to a date on the nearest weekend, such as last night’s Cardiff affair on November 1st. The problem with that is that there are other events scheduled for tonight (I can hear fireworks as I write) and there will no doubt be others on the proper night, next Wednesday. I think it’s better if there is one proper day where everything happens, rather than having it all spread out over practically a whole week. The Big Event loses its sparkle if it is broken up into little ones. And there are more occasions where we have fireworks nowadays too, including New Years Eve. In the old days we only had fireworks on Bonfire Night, so they were special. It’s also a particular problem for Columbo, who gets very frightened by fireworks if they are let off nearby. Instead of being a scaredy cat for just one night he has to cope for several.

Another tradition associated with November 5th also seems to have died completely. When I was a kid the thing to do was to make an effigy of Guy Fawkes (called a “Guy”) and parade him from door to door asking for “Penny for the Guy”. The idea was if you had an impressive effigy, people would give you money which you used to buy fireworks for the forthcoming party. Of course you were hoping for a bit more than a penny.

I suppose that this tradition has been displaced by the American import “Trick or Treat”, which I think is a shame. It’s true that many bonfire celebrations have an unpleasant anti-catholic undertone which is a reminder of the religious intolerance that blights much of British history. It may be an ugly history, but at least its ours. Next thing you know we won’t have Guy Fawkes’ Night at all; we’ll have to call it 5/11.

I remember one year spending ages making a really good Guy with a head made from papier mache and with plasticene for his eyes, nose and mouth. I was really proud of him, especially when he sat on top of the huge pile of wood that was going to form the bonfire. When it was lit – which happened before the fireworks started – the heat from the flames started to melt the plasticene features of the Guy.

The other kids rushed around in excitement as the adults sorted out the roman candles, catherine wheels and the rest of the soon-to-be-ignited pyrotechnics, but I stood transfixed, staring at the Guy. After a few minutes I started sobbing and ran to my mum in anguish as molten plasticene dripped from his eyes.

Guy Fawkes was crying.

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3 Responses to “Bonfire of the Inanities”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    The Health And Safety Polizei have ruined home fireworks displays because you can’t get decent fireworks over the counter any more. I liked a home bonfire on November 5th AND a big municipal display on the nearest Saturday (although I sympathise with Columbo). Incidentally, home fireworks are hardly a tradition that goes back to 1605.

    Some heavy stuff goes on in Lewes on November 5th, but I can’t think of a nation within our culture having MORE religious tolerance than England…

    Anton

  2. telescoper Says:

    I went to the Lewes celebrations several times when I was a student at Sussex University. The town has several groups (“Societies”) that compete to put on the best fires, fireworks and costume parades which makes it a truly amazing spectacle. The effigies being burned are not just of Guy Fawkes or Pope Paul V (who was Pope in 1605) but also of anybody who happens to be unpopular with the Societies at the time, and it is this aspect that sometimes gets out of hand. In 2003, for example, one of the societies decided to burn a gypsy caravan. Not nice.

  3. [...] had a bit of a tough week, especially on Wednesday with Bonfire Night fireworks going off all around my house until after 10pm. From my bedroom window I saw a [...]

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