A little ahead of time, or a little behind it, given that most fireworks displays will have taken place over the weekend – I went to one at our local Rugby Club on Friday evening. The major change here from previous years was that there was no bonfire – presumably because the club is a hundred yards or so from a main road and I can see that having thick clouds of smoke suddenly blinding motorists could cause problems.
There is a long and fascinating history of November 5th celebrations on Wikipedia, from which I learned that health and safety concerns are nothing new. Fireworks were first banned on those grounds in the 1680s, ‘much mischief having been done by squibs’. The custom of children collected Pennies for the Guy has been the subject of controversy since it first arose in the late 18th century (in 1790 the The Times first complained about children ‘begging for money for Guy Faux‘). In 1802 a ‘set of idle fellows … with some horrid figure dressed up as Guy Faux‘ were convicted of begging and sent to prison as ‘idle and disorderly persons‘. Nowadays the respectable complaint is that children are too idle to make Guys, or that they are prevented from asking for money by paranoia about their safety.
David Cressy is quoted as saying that, by the 18th Century, Bonfire Night had become ‘a polysemous occasion, meaning all things to all men‘, which sounds about right. As an example, when I lived in London, I remember a friend (a Swedish Marxist academic and protoblogmartyr) and I taking our children to a display on one of London’s highest points. He looked around as fires raged all over London and explosions lit up the sky and said “I know why you English enjoy this – it reminds you of the Blitz“. I could see his point.
I confess to having a childlike fascination with fireworks and could look at them for hours – except that I think most small children are more likely to be frightened by fireworks than fascinated and looking at them for hours is precisely what you cannot do. I think – aside from the elemental quality of the fire – that part of the fascination lies in the purely abstract beauty of the fireworks (Whistler’s pot of paint flung in the face of the public was, of course, a painting of a fireworks display).
Having taken some photographs on Friday, I could now look at them for hours (if I had the time), and can read anything into them I choose to – a dying star, a palm tree, a coral reef, marigolds, fireflies, a Jackson Pollock, the birth of the Universe – or nothing.