Christmas might be bigger. Hallowe’en might be more popular with the kids. You might get more chocolate at Easter, or more beer on any bank holiday you care to name. But for me, Bonfire Night is the cultural highlight of the year.
Most events have been pretty much stripped of meaning through commerce and secularism. We all still love Christmas but for the most of us these days it’s an excuse to grow fat in front of the telly and treat ourselves and people close to us with various consumer goods. Crucially though, there is very little of the communal invested in it any more. Christmas largely takes place in your mum’s front room with immediate family and perhaps some friends later on.
Bonfire Night is, by contrast, outside and everywhere.
How to do it properly
The perfect bonfire
First off, forget about big organised displays run by yer local council. Those guys sap the fun out of the whole damn thing with their insistence on you keeping a safe distance from the fire and explosives. That makes for no fun at all. To do it properly, you either need a poorly supervised pub fire or – better still – a pile of wood in your back garden. Getting the wood is the Devil’s own game. Firstly, make sure you save up leftover wood from any DIY you might undertake through the year is the kind of boring side of it. More fun is ‘chumping’ for wood.
Chumping is basically the art of stealing, begging and generally aquiring wood. Techniques for chumping vary from the semi-respectable asking your neighbour, to the more despicable stealing-from-someone-else’s-unlit-fire. Normally, if you’re too old to go nicking wood from other people’s back gardens, your best bet is to ask anyone coming to bring any wood they happen to have.
To get the thing lit is a matter of dispute among men. Somewhere in our primal cores, we all believe ourselves to be masters of the art. Personally I just go for a shitload of newspapers piled up under the smaller pieces of wood and sticks and erect a wigwam style edifice of dangerously leaning bits of wood on top. You might choose to use accelerants such as petrol or meths, but it’s all a matter of personal choice.
You get bonus points for having bits of wood that are painted with noxious chemicals or contain nails and screws which can impale unwary visitors for months afterward as they nestle in the ashes.
Making a Guy
Your Guy should be a badly constructed effigy that bears no resemblance to any person living or dead outside of Barnum’s freak show. A badly stuffed jumper, stapled to a pair of old trackie bottoms and bulked out with srunched-up newspaper is really as ambitious as you should get. Probably some nitwit town full of hicks someplace has a parade and a prize for the best Guy, but really: fuck that. All we want to do is burn an effigy of a papist.
In the past, kids used to collect “a penny for t’guy” by wheeling their Guy around in an improvised trolley of some sort, eliciting donations for the soon-to-be-combusted figure for Whatever Reason. This seems to have died a death these days. Probably because everyone’s got sick of kids begging on Hallowe’en the week before. That and our modern fear of rapists.
Bonfire Night Food
I don’t know if the food varies from place to place but here in Yorkshire (where Guy Fawkes hailed from) we have a pretty steady roster of food. The main thing they share in common is sheer stodginess and a kind of heartiness well suited to a cold Yorkshire night. The are listed here in order of importance:
- Pork pie, mushy peas and mint sauce – the pinnacle of bonfire eating
- Parkin (a kind of dense, sticky ginger cake made from the super-heavy neutrinos found at the heart of collapsing stars)
- Jacket spuds – for authenticity, try to cook them on the fire itself. Within 6 short hours you will have 3 inches of solid carbon surrounding a tiny nugget of raw potato. Perfick!
- Bonfire toffee – a very hard, brittle toffee heavy on the black treacle
- Corned beef hash – in Yorkshire served as a stew rather than the ‘dry’ Irish version
- Chilli - presumably a fairly recent addition to the canon
- Some generic soup for the lightweights
Today’s know-nothing, cash-rich nincompoops will spend huge sums on vast displays of artillery for the garden. You can always spot the local chav family by the ‘shock and awe’ display up the street which seems to boom away until the wee small hours. Forget it. What you’re really looking for is a small box of Standard fireworks with the following iconic items within:
- Catherine wheel – nail to shed, stand back, watch it do precisely no wheeling, despite vigorous hits of the hammer by the bravest member of your party
- Traffic light - changes colour almost perceptibly from Kind of Green to Is That Yellow to Hang On That’s Red Isn’t It?
- Vesuvius - a raging torrent of deathdealing lava flows and stupendous earth-rending destruction compressed into a tiny, harmless spray of short-lived sparks
- Roman Candle - “emits showers of sparks.” Nuff said.
- Chrysanthemum Fountain – named after a flower. Aptly.
- The Genie - not an official firework by any means, but if you’re feeling daring… gather up all the spent fireworks, stick them in a box, chuck in a match and run like hell.
Also - fuck the Firework Code.
If you’re taking the event all seriously, you should give consideration to chanting anti-Catholic slogans during your fire. Even if your fire starts to sputter and die you should still get a warm glow from knowing that untold thousands of Papists and Jesuits (possibly) were done to death so you can live a free, Protestant life today. If you’re lucky enough to live in Lewes, you can even hold a torchlit rally with no sinister overtones whatsoever.
Bonfire Night and Pets
Oh yeah. Mention should be given to pets, who seem to get an easy ride of it these days. You’re supposed to put black out blinds on the rabbit hutch, counsel your dog and stuff your hamster’s ears with cotton wool. Actually, empirical research shows that all animals love exposure to fire and explosions and will suffer nothing more than a hysterical laughing fit if you stuff a small banger up their arsehole.
A potted history of Bonfire Night…
If you’re unaware of what Bonfire Night is, it is a commemoration of the Gunpowder Plot. The historical roots behind it are deep – dating back to England’s split from its Catholic past spurred on by Henry VIII. Ever after that momentous spell, England see-sawed between a reconciliation with Rome and a deeper move to protestantism that reached its terrible apogee with the Civil War. Incredibly, that argument still rumbles on today. In 1605, however, the argument was literally a matter of life and death.
Catholics were supposed to represent a mortal threat to England and her hard-won independence from Papism. Their alien creeds, liturgies given in Latin and obedience to the Pope over the authority of the State were seen as sinister and threatening. Given those fears and the constant wars England was engaged in with Catholic powers like Spain, Catholics found themselves on the sharp end of pretty draconian laws.
The upshot of it is that various groups dedicated to the Catholic cause sprung up throughout the country with numerous ideas of how to get better religious rights or – more radically – convert the country to Catholicism. One such plot – known to history as “The Gunpowder Plot” – centred on the idiosyncratic notion that detonating a load of explosives under parliament and attempting to kill both the King and his Government would somehow help Catholics become more accepted in the country. No. I don’t understand it either.
Having spent months surreptitiously placing gunpowder in one of the many cellars beneath Parliament, the plot was uncovered and the government’s vengeance was swift and terrible. A network of plotters was unmasked and in the spirit of the times many of them met grisly public deaths. Although the ringleader was Robert Catesby, it was Guido “Guy” Fawkes who became the most famous of the plotters. Tortured for weeks before his confession, he was hung, drawn and quartered at Westminster on 31st January 1606.
Even today, effigies of Guy Fawkes are burnt atop bonfires, long after (for most of us) the fierce sectarian nature of bonfire nights origins has slipped into a dim and alien past.