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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, November 05, 2005
    To light a fire
    ... to light a fire is the instinctive and resilient act of men when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery, and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.

    As the firework-formed fog begins to lift across this damp estate and overhead explosions diminish and fade I end the day with the very dependable Ronald Hutton, who, in Stations of the Sun, quotes Thomas Hardy whose view, expressed so powerfully in The Return of the Native (above), was that winter-eve bonfire nIghts had always been in existence, a primal expression of the people of these islands.

    Hutton gently - but characteristically thoroughly - debunks this, underlining the truth that prior to the Act of Parliament in 1606 commanding the church to set November 5 as a holy day, 'Bonfire Night' didn't take place. So it began as a political festival, but over the centuries has been kept for all sorts of reasons, adopted for all sorts of causes. Today, as Hutton observes, it is regaining something of a communal edge, albeit tamed, as people flock to large civic displays. Out in the suburbs it reflects the times inasmuch as it's a private, back garden, family affair.

    But I think it's only private in the same ambivalent way as mobile phones are private - you think that the noise you're making is just between you and your family and friends but in fact you're doing it in public and everyone can hear it. I'm glad that at the end of his survey Hutton turns to agree with Thomas Hardy's deeper intuition, about the need in us to light fires to protest the onset of dark, deathly winter. Whatever else Bonfire Night is about, it does seem there's a great truth in that.