Every year on November 5th arsonists across the United Kingdom celebrate Bonfire Night (aka Guy Fawkes Night). It is the only festival I know of which involves enacting the immolation of a would-be terrorist, and the traditions and rituals associated with it are observed with an almost religious fervour.
I love Bonfire Night because it’s such a wildly eclectic and bizarre spectacle and because it showcases a number of characteristics not typically associated with the British temperament: tribalism, patriotism, exuberance, exhibitionism, frivolity and fraternity, to name a few. I also love it for the illusion of anarchy it creates, and for its sheer noise and vibrancy.
It so happens that I live down the road from Lewes, which is renowned across the country for its extravagant Bonfire Night celebrations. This year some 30,000 people showed up in this small and otherwise unremarkable East Sussex town to witness the festivities (photos are displayed below).
Approaching Lewes by road on Bonfire Night you encounter police roadblocks with pulsing blue lights. You see a tremulous blood-orange glow hanging ominously over the rooftops and hear the steady primal beat of drums, punctuated by the crack of cherry bombs. Then comes the potent whiff of kerosene.
When you reach the thick of the action you meet processions of marchers carrying flaming torches, dressed in an array of intricate costumes. You see smugglers, monks, Zulus, American Indians, Vikings all marching in unison, headed up by a brass band. The sides of the road are strewn with smouldering burned-out torches and flakes of firecracker paper. Somewhere bag-pipes wail a rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’. And floats depicting a condemned Guy Fawkes and the pope in caricature travel down the cobbled streets flanked by jeering crowds. The pageant culminates with towering bonfires and firework shows, as well as the burning of effigies of the pope and infamous public figures (this year Bashar-al Assad went up in flames with his arsenal of chemical weapons).
So what’s this all about? To a visitor from another culture the sight must be bewildering, perhaps even unsettling or offensive. Aside from the apparently anti-Catholic atmosphere, there is plenty here which might alarm outsiders. For many, especially people from the United States, the flaming crosses are no doubt uncomfortably reminiscent of a Klu Klux Klan parade. And those with a sensitivity for political correctness may squirm at the sight of middle class white people decked out in tribal headdresses and blackface. And of course there is the apparent total lack of health and safety measures.
Well, I don’t know all the ins and outs of this tradition, but I can vouch for the people of Lewes that they mean no harm. Despite Bonfire Night’s overtones of religious sectarianism and its macabre obsession with execution by fire, nobody takes it seriously, just as those who celebrate Halloween don’t necessarily subscribe to its occult origins. If anything the event is just an excuse for people to get into costume and indulge their primal fascination with fire.
As to the background of Bonfire Night, all I can tell you is this: it originates from a day in 1605 when Catholic insurgent Guy Fawkes (popularized in recent years by the movie ‘V for Vendetta’ and the ‘Anonymous’ protest movement) led a plot to overthrow the Protestant government by blowing up the House of Lords. The plot was foiled and Fawkes was sentenced to a long drawn-out death involving asphyxiation, castration, disembowelment and decapitation, but he escaped his grim fate by jumping from the gallows and thus breaking his neck. So it goes.
One thing’s for sure, there’s nothing like festive ritual for bringing out the inner weirdness of human beings. Cultures all around the world have their own quirky traditions, and the British are no different in that regard.