Had Guido Fawkes not been caught in flagrante on 5 November 1605 – 36 barrels packed with 2,500 kilos of gunpowder in a cellar beneath the House of Lords – the ensuing explosion would have wiped out those attending the State Opening of Parliament, and 500 metres of prime London land. Not an entirely unattractive proposition today, though I’d miss the Gothic grandeur of the Palace of Westminster and the imperial architecture of Whitehall.
“A despicable relic of a culture that commended, in the name of Christian duty, the persecution of religious minorities, the burning of witches and the ritual desecration of suicides,” so says one historian. But so stupefying is the collective historical amnesia afflicting British culture, recent events, let alone the plotting of over 400 years ago, cannot be recalled unless sanctioned officially.
Just under 1,000 people are injured each year on Bonfire Night (around half being children) and calls to what’s left of the fire brigade may triple. But Guy Fawkes night has become another commodified and sanitized spectacle in the dreary Disneyfied diary of organized fun which YOU WILL enjoy. Don’t forget your safety goggles and poor Miss Tiggy-Winkle. Dull, dull, dull.
As ever, social commentary leads me to the twilight zone, what the historian Eric Hobsbawm refers to as the gap
between history and memory; between past as a generalized record which is open to relatively dispassionate inspection and the past as a remembered part of, or background to, one’s own life. For individual human beings this zone stretches from the point where living family traditions or memories begin … to the end of infancy, where public and private destinies are recognized as inseparable and as mutually defining one another.
Back to those glorious day, before the war, when there was a bobby on the beat and a quarter of the globe painted imperial pink. Bonfire Night in the 1930s was a riot. In 1931 The Times reported a “pitched battle” fought between “thousands” of revellers on Parliament Hill using fireworks as weapons. Four years later, a man was fined the then not insignificant sum of £5 for obstructing and assaulting a policeman attempting to put out a street bonfire. Guy was the National Government. Such was the mayhem in 1936, London Fire Brigade’s 60 stations received a record 116 calls in four hours to put out street fires.
Of the Campbell Bunk, a long-demolished street off the Seven Sisters Road near Finsbury Park tube station, with known “rough families”, lodging houses and attendant itinerant workers and prostitutes, one ex-copper mused:
I remember Bonfire night in 1937. The street was alight from one end to the other, doors, window frames, sofas blazing away and the Fire Brigade were unable to do anything. Hoses were cut and Police had to stand by in case of incidents. The next year arrangements were made for a number of PCs, myself and an Inspector to patrol the road from about 4pm. We were able to assist the local authority dustmen to remove any rubbish that was being prepared for a bonfire and the Firemen put any fires that started. About 10pm the rain came down, and as all was quiet we decided to withdraw but the residents had the last laugh, for suddenly the Inspector in Charge was struck full in the chest with a bag of flour which burst, and one can imagine the laughter that caused to the residents.
Don’t forget the students. In 1930 six students were arrested and up before the beak at Bow Street when police were called by the Warden of University College to put out a fire. 200 students were involved in this fracas and threw fireworks into the bonfire. Reports have it that “pandemonium reigned for a considerable time.” Over in the Strand, a crowd of 600 undergraduates ran wild tearing down theatre placards and smashing lamps.
So you won’t be surprised to learn that I won’t be attending any fireworks displays or bonfire parties. But I’ll discard my atheism, for the day, and pen a letter to the Guardian whining “offence” – once a Catholic … and toast the “fuck you” spirit of the ’30s, through a glass darkly.
- Luke Beardsworth, “10 Things You Didn’t Know about the History of Bonfire Night”, Birmingham Mail, 8 October 2015 http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/whats-on/family-kids-news/10-things-you-didnt-know-10220395
- Justin Champion, “The Flames of Hate”, Guardian, 4 Nov 2005 http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/nov/04/britishidentity.comment
- Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987)
- Cameron Macphail, “Bonfire Night 2015: Why Do We Celebrate Fireworks Night?”, Daily Telegraph, 3 Nov 2015 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/11970395/Why-do-we-celebrate-Bonfire-Night-When-is-it-and-who-is-Guy-Fawkes.html
- Jerry White, Campbell Bunk: The Worst Street in North London between the Wars (London: Pimlico, 2nd edn., 2003)
- “Guy Fawkes Day in London”, The Times, 7 November 1930
- “Guy Fawkes Night Dangers”, The Times, 7 November 1935
- “Guy Fawkes Night Fires”, The Times, 6 November 1936