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)


Pauline Fisk said…
Not rubbish at all. It's amazing how things lose their meaning. Bonfire Night for example - when I was a sparkler-toting kid it was called Guy Fawkes Night. Not that, even then, it was actually presented as Parliament being blown up by a terrorist cell! Would the Americans make a fun night out for the kiddies out of 9/ll? I can't quite see it happening.

I like what you say about peeling back the lid. I don't quite know about truth disguised as fiction [it's the disguise bit I'm worried about] but yes to our writing making people think, starting with ourselves.
Kathleen Jones said…
Great fun Debbie - and true too. It's always seemed bizarre to me that we burn a replica human being (and a catholic at that) on a bonfire. I've often wondered whether it has a parallel in the Wicker Man? another pagan rite subsumed into our christian culture. I'm not going to avoid the fireworks though - I love them, and the italians set them off at every opportunity!
Knifesedge said…
Surely the celebration is of the failure of a terrorist plot, not of the act itself? The strange thing is that this still occurs 400+ years later.
Debbie Bennett said…
I thought about drawing a parallel to 9/11 but decided to let people make their own comparisons. It's still too close for a great many people - but who knows what will happen in another 400 years.

@Craig - yes we *should* be celebrating failure, but are we? And by burning the guy on a fire?
Dan Holloway said…
Interesting that you wrote this in October, Deb. I wonder how different it would be now, with the V for Vendetta mask adopted by the Occupy movement (V for Vendetta is the November Reading Club book on the Guardian website, which promises to be interesting). I'd love to know what you make of that.
Debbie Bennett said…
Dan, I have to admit I'd never heard of V for Vendetta. Just googled it and will have to go read the book and/or see the film.
Debbie Bennett said…
Urgh. Just had a read of the opening pages on amazon. Seems awfully pretentious to me. Maybe I'll download a sample and try a bit more if I can get past the start...

I'm not convinced by the Occupy movement, to be honest. Certainly not in London. I don't doubt they have a point and maybe some are making it in the only way they know how, but I'm sure most of them come from rent-a-protest - those who travel the country looking for anything to protest against. It's a way of life for some people, without ever really needing to understand the "cause". Which - on thinking about it - may be the very point I'm making in the blog!
I think you'll find (says she, speaking as a folklorist and mediaeval historian to trade), that what we are really celebrating isn't Guy Fawkes. It's Samhain, the ancient Celtic turn of the year festival, which then sort of attached itself to the early Christian all souls/all saints festivals marking the end of summer.It's a festival dedicated to both harvest and the dead, and the light of the bonfire reminds us that all is not lost, the year will turn, the light will return. Guy Fawkes was a much later attempt to attach the traditional bonfire celebrations to something 'politically correct'- for its time. Here in Scotland, as another historian friend remarked to me last night, as we stood among the soup and the glow sticks, watching the kids gathered around the bonfire, 'how pagan is this?' And it was. But in a good way, bringing the whole of our little community together, kids, grandparents, parents, friends. For sure there was a Guy - the kids had made him in the school - and he was burned, but in this village at least, the sense of something deeply significant that has gone on for time out of mind was stronger than anything else.
Griselda Heppel said…
Great discussion of the Guy Fawkes phenomenon but I have to take issue with the idea that it isn't part of our culture. It is, isn't it, that's why we still do it?

Also I can't accept there are no real truths - there certainly are, the problem is that people can interpret truths in different ways. Once anyone starts talking about 'my truth', for instance, you know they mean 'my VIEW of the truth'. Not truth itself.

Ooh getting in deep here! Thanks for so much food for thought.

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