Remember remember the 5th of November

Sunday, November 5, 2017

“Remember remember the fifth of November,
the gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.”
Halloween has mostly caught on over here, though it’s not really an English tradition. Halloween is an import from America, like McDonald’s instead of Wimpy’s. These days it's common to see people dress up in Halloween costumes and have parties and you even get the occasional trick-or-treater. But the truly English autumnal festival is Guy Fawkes day, now generally called Bonfire Night. I’ve been here for for seven years now and finally this year, for the first time, I managed to take part in a proper bonfire for the occasion.

First, for less-astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers, a primer on the eponymous character. Guy Fawkes was part of a group of English Catholics who planned the famous Gunpowder Plot, a plan was to blow up the House of Lords on the opening of parliament on November 5, 1605, thus killing the king and paving the way for the installation of a Catholic head of state. Led by Robert Catesby, the scheme involved placing 36 barrels of gunpowder in an underground cellar below parliament. Because of his military experience, Guy Fawkes was put in charge of the explosives, which left him guarding the barrels. However, the entire plot was discovered through an anonymous letter and Fawkes was found during the resulting search of the parliament buildings. Interestingly, the Houses of Parliament are still searched once each year to make sure no modern-day Fawkesian miscreants are hiding in the cellars. Yeomen of the Guard conduct the largely ceremonial search before the State Opening of Parliament. (One can only assume that there are also more frequent and diligent searches conducted with slightly more rigour and less silly looking outfits.)

How nefarious he looks! He's also the inspiration for the Guy Fawkes mask, popularised by the movie "V for Vendetta" and those hacktivists at Anonymous.

Guy Fawkes (and any conspirators who fled and survived a later battle) were put on trial, convicted and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. With anti-Catholic sentiment running high, and to celebrate the foiling of the plot, parliament declared a public holiday on Nov. 5 by passing the catchily named “Observance of 5th of November Act” (see what you can do with that one, Hallmark!).

As you might guess from their origins, the celebrations historically had a strong anti-Catholic tone, with Fawkes becoming a bogeyman and a pretext for Catholic repression for hundreds of years. Thankfully, that’s mostly gone now. In modern tradition, the 5th of November is commemorated with a bonfire and culminates in a fireworks display, apparently to reference the “fireworks” that failed to destroy Parliament. Effigies of Guy Fawkes - complete with pilgrim style hat and ruffled collar - are processed to the site of the fire and thrown onto the pyre for burning. However, while a Guy Fawkes-like “Guy” may be traditional, these days any reviled public figure is fair game. Donald Trump pops up frequently, and this year Harvey Weinstein made at least one appearance.

The biggest Bonfire Night events in the UK (and, therefore, the world) happen in the small town of Lewes south of London, which has six different Bonfire Societies that each hold elaborate processions of Guys and light their own fires and attracts thousands of people. So many attend that they shut down some roads and all train service to the town for the day, making it a bit of a mission to participate. I thought it would be fun to go see Bonfire Night in Lewes, but had nothing like the level of commitment needed to travel the day before, find lodging in the over-crowded town on the busiest night of the year, and fight through the teeming throng. Instead, accompanied once again by the Intrepid Raul, I attended a very nice little community celebration in the bucolic suburb of Barnes, southwest London, which turned out to be just the right combination of tradition, size, and ease of access.

The Barnes Bonfire Night is a bit special because they actually have a bonfire. This may seem to the uninitiated like a prerequisite (the clue is in the name…) but actual bonfires are dishearteningly rare these days. Fireworks displays are a-dime-a-dozen (or perhaps I should say ten-a-penny?). Honestly, it seems like every night for the last two or three weeks I’ve been able to hear fireworks going off somewhere (this is partly because it was just Diwali, but honestly I’m so over the fireworks these days. I can hear fireworks right now as I write this.) But a bonfire? Bring it on! I suppose modern safety regulations make it more and more difficult to construct an enormous pile of tinder dry fuel and set it ablaze while hundreds of people stand around watching. In the days before “Elfin Safety Gone Mad” it was common for families or neighbourhoods to have their own bonfire and set off a small display of fireworks. Children would make their own Guys and parade them through the streets, soliciting donations to buy fireworks from passers-by with the phrase “A penny for the Guy?”. Raul confirms that as a child he remembers making a Guy in school and once even getting together with friends to construct and light their own bonfire. Innocent times indeed.

Apparently "the penny for the Guy" tradition lasted right into the 1980s, when children were banned from buying fireworks. Now it’s mostly died out, which is too bad because it is adorably instragrammable.

While it certainly wasn’t the massive all-out effort you’d get in Lewes, the Barnes Bonfire Night was just excellent. The weather was crisp enough that it felt properly autumnal, and the event was held at a community sports ground, where they’d assembled an impressive pile of fuel for the bonfire to one side of the cricket pitch. There were lots of families participating, and the whole thing had just the right home-grown vibe, with lots kids running around and overly friendly announcers on microphones with just a touch of feedback, and the season’s first mulled wine. It was, in a word, charming.

Here’s the giant pile of fuel. I estimate it was about 25’ in diameter.

There were also few carnival style rides and games and a couple stalls of food and drink and lots of vendors selling different light-up LED toys and sparklers. Again, sparklers are traditional, but I guess LEDs cause fewer life-changing scars, so, you know, swings and roundabouts. It was heartening to see a few sparklers at least.

Blurry Arty shot of kids with light-up toys

Barnes also had a contest for the best Guy - several families had made effigies and they were all set up on a park bench to be judged by a local councillor. The family who won had clearly made a real effort and their Guy, including requisite pilgrim hat with comedy-sized buckle, was quite rightly judged the winner. After the winner was declared, all the Guys were processed to the bonfire area and placed on the pile. Even better, the family who made the winning Guy were given the honour of lighting the bonfire.

The Guys, including the clear winner standing literally head and shoulders above the others.

The bonfire itself was bloody impressive. It was lit from a series of pyrotechnics buried in the pile and contained a lot of tree branches with dried leaves that burned ferociously at first, sending plumes of sparks into the air like an erupting volcano.

The volcano effect.

There was a ring of fence surrounding the bonfire to keep people back, but the heat was so intense that people instinctively backed away more and more as the flames grew. You just couldn’t be that close.

The bonfire in all its glory, with the winning Guy silhouetted against the flames.

Watching a real fire is always a bit hypnotic, and the scale of this multiplied that effect. Raul and I just stood in the crowd feeling the waves of heat and the brilliant orange light and chatting and occasionally checking to make sure any outer clothing was not melting.

And taking a selfie of course!

Here’s the crowd, lit by the glow of the fire. It's truly the only light source in this photo.

The fire went through stages - first the sparking volcano, then the intense leaping flames, then the flames died down some and you could start to see the outline of the blackened fuel in the pile, and then the heaps of glowing coals. Periodically, some local committee member with a hosepipe would creep forward to spray down a patch of grass that had caught light around the periphery, though I think that the poor Barnes Sports Club cricket pitch will be quite worse for wear for some time.



And of course there were also fireworks, an impressively lengthy display that we turned to watch with our right sides still baking from bonfire heat.

Photos of fireworks taken on an iPhone are even worse that photos of a bonfire taken on an iPhone.

And then the fireworks were done and we turned back to the fire, which had progressed to the heaps-of-coals stage. Apparently with smaller bonfires it’s traditional to put potatoes in the coals to bake. I  realised that I regularly have lovely coals in my stove and tried this trick myself which did result in a potato that was basically edible, though half the skin had to be abandoned after turning into something with the consistency of a roofing tile and the colour of Donald Trump's heart. Other traditional Bonfire Night foods include Bonfire Toffee (made from black treacle) caramel apples, and gingerbread-like Parkin, none of which were in evidence in Barnes (damn). I briefly considered trying to make Parkin cake the next day, but decided to spend the time blogging instead. Lucky you.

The bonfire looked set to burn on for hours longer, so Raul and I finally left the sports ground and walked along the Thames back to the station. The boat is parked back at my marina mooring these days which is pleasant but about as conveniently located as the dark side of the moon so I was keen to start the long trek home. When I got there the stove seemed to be filled with the spirit of Bonfire Night, lighting easily and quickly progressing to the glowing coals stage, so I went to bed in warmth and comfort, with the smell of the bonfire in my nose and the satisfaction of finally having ticked that little item off my list. Next year: Parkin!


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