The Day After Yesterday - Debbie Bennett
Previously published twelve years ago, I was talking about why we 'celebrate' Bonfire night ...
Yesterday was bonfire night (she says, writing this in early October) and we’ll have just finished celebrating witchcraft and terrorism. And I’m not talking Hallowe'en here, which after all is a recognised pagan festival, even if it has been hijacked by commercialism. But what else do you call a celebration of the day somebody tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament? Not to mention the fact that we celebrate it by letting off our own explosive devices – either privately at home or at an organised display – and by burning an effigy. It’s all positively medieval, isn’t it? And yet we stand with our sparklers watching Guy Fawkes on the bonfire and oohing and ahhing at the fireworks, and nobody apparently thinks this is wrong in any way – apart from the pet-lovers and the health-and-safety people, that is.
Why? It’s not a part of our culture, nor is it a religious festival of any kind. As far as I am aware, it’s a uniquely British thing. Guy Fawkes, together with others, plotted to assassinate King James I and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne. Their method? Blowing up a government building with no thought to who else might be killed at the same time - although GF did allegedly have a pang of guilt which ultimately led to the failure of his plot. But if that’s not terrorism, then I don’t know what is. And we laugh about it, make “guys” out of old clothes and straw and set them alight, and happily watch coloured explosions in the sky.
Maybe it’s a way of dealing with tragedy, that nervous laugh that you sometimes get in a difficult situation. Perhaps we are simply celebrating the fact that Guy Fawkes' plot didn't succeed, even though we burn him for trying. Or is it a way of bringing history alive with a modern relevance – you have to remember that in 1605 books were for the rich, and although the printing press had been invented (I have Wikipedia …), much of the population was probably illiterate (… but I’m not an historian). So stories were still handed down the generations by word-of-mouth and doubtless there were many who thought that maybe Mr Fawkes had been right – I’m sure there was as much political propaganda in the 17th century as there is now, even if most of it was localised and oral.
Or perhaps it’s the uniquely British concept of “any excuse for a party”. The way we celebrate religious festivals with no real thought as to what we are celebrating. It’s hard to buy Christmas cards with religious imagery these days and I’m sure I read somewhere that some council wanted to call the Christmas holiday a “winter festival” as it was felt to be more relevant to modern Britain.
What does that tell us about society today? That there are no real truths; that our thinking and reasoning is as much a product of our history and upbringing as it is of our own opinions and prejudices. That we don’t think about the culture that underpins our country – we just blindly follow where others lead, especially if there’s a pub at the end of it. That’s where we can make a difference as writers. Writers have a gift in being able to peel the lid off life and poke around at the murky contents with a big stick. (I love that line so much I'm copyrighting it). By bringing these truths out disguised as fiction, we can make people think - just like I'm making you think now, reading this. And when people think, they make conscious decisions and take responsibility for their actions. And that can only be a good thing.
(and I talk rubbish there too)
(and I talk rubbish there too)