Saturday, November 07, 2009

Bonfire Night: A Very English Culturtainment Spectacle

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason,
Why the Gunpowder Treason,
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent,
To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below,
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd,
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
And what should we do with him? Burn him!

A song that used to be sang as part of bonfire night celebrations.

Culturtainment is ‘entertainment that involves the demonstration, celebration or commemoration of the values, traditions or beliefs of a societal group’ (Moss, 2009, p.294). ‘Bonfire Night’ (also known as Guy fawkes night) is one such example of a culturtainment celebration where English people celebrate the failed plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament by Guy Fawkes (arguably the only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions), by standing around bonfires and being captivated and mesmerised by the dancing flames, as well as accompanying explosive firework displays.

Guy Fawkes was one of several plotters lead by Robert Catesby who intended to blow up the Houses of Parliament using Barrels of gunpowder which had been smuggled into the building’s cellars, the intention being to blow up the ruling King (James VI) along with the majority of Protestant English aristocracy. This was in the hope that the Protestant government would be over-turned and England restored to being a Roman-Catholic state. Fawkes along with the barrels of gunpowder were discovered by guards on the 5th of November 1605, and London residents were encouraged to light bonfires in celebration of the plot being discovered and the King being saved. Over hundreds of years the lighting of bonfires on the 5th of November became a tradition across Britain (particularly England), as well as abroad (in British Empire and Commonwealth countries) to commemorate the foiling of the plot, along with the ‘burning of the Guy’, which was the burning of a stuffed material effigy of Guy Fawkes. In the latter half of the 20th Century this developed further to include firework displays, and from the 1980s onwards very grand and professionally choreographed public displays in large open spaces. Bonfire night grew in popularity as events in public spaces drew people away from small garden bonfires to much larger organised community events in parks and on council or privately owned land.

Gathering around bonfires is nothing new, and man has been doing this since the dawn of time. Tribal societies in less developed parts of the world, give us an indication as to how our own ancestors would have lived their lives centuries ago, when fire served as a comforter, cooker, security barrier and entertainer. Fires were lit in spaces that were the focal point of many communities, and local people would gather around them. In our homes the fireplace was always the focal point of shared living areas right until the mid 20th century when it was demoted by the radio and then the television. It is a point of interest to note that the word ‘bonfire’ is only used to describe outdoor fires, and ‘bonfire’ has its origins in the term ‘bone fires’, which were fires held across Europe each Autumn to burn the bones and inedible parts of animal carcasses left after livestock had been harvested and cured for the winter months ahead, such bone fires were also times of celebration and thanks and were a kind of ‘harvest festival’ (Sayers, 2009). Bonfires are now lit across the world at times of celebration, including: the Swiss National Day; the Battle of the Boyne commemoration in Northern Ireland; and also for May Day celebrations in Britain and many other parts of the world.

My childhood memories of bonfire night and its associated celebrations include ‘penny for the guy’ where children would make an effigy of Guy Fawkes, and sit with it on the street begging passers by for a penny for the guy. Whilst no child became rich from this endeavour it would certainly provide money for sweets or fireworks. The ‘Guy’ would then be burnt on top of the 5th of November bonfire. The very notion of burning an effigy of a person is something that does not sit comfortably amongst politically correct thinkers today, and consequently penny for the Guy and the burning of the Guy is a tradition that has declined. What has also declined is the true communal nature of organised bonfire nights in England. I remember as a youngster the piles of debris that would become bonfires being constructed weeks before bonfire night. Bonfires would be made from a plethora of things dragged to the site of the bonfire by members of the public including unwanted furniture of all kinds, logs, garden cuttings, bails of newspapers, boxes of old magazines, old car tyres - basically anything flammable. The construction of, and contribution to the bonfire was a truly communal undertaking. I remember thick black acrid smoke from the poisonous pile that would become ingrained into our clothes and hair as we dared one another to stand as close to the fire as we could.

Those days of red faces, singed eyebrows and melted Wellington boots are now long gone, as community bonfires have been made safer with the addition of stewards and safety fences, which in the case of some bonfires are so far away from the fire that it is not possible to feel the heat from the flames. The fires themselves have been sterilised, and today largely consist of wooden pallets provided by the organisers and very little else, guaranteeing a fast burn and a less polluting smoke – could it be that in years to come, heightened environmental awareness combined with increasing political correctness will signal the end of large-scale community bonfires, and that the way by which bonfire night itself is commemorated will involve other entertaining features including fun fairs and fireworks (that are already commonplace now), combined with live music and staged story / variety performances?

In London at the 2009 Clapham Common 5th of November celebrations, bonfire night had been re-branded as a firework display, and there was no bonfire, the website said ‘There are no bonfires sadly because fires aren’t allowed in public parks, probably because someone might trip and fall into it… or something.’ Fires not being allowed in public parks is currently limited to London, which is sad in light of the fact that London was the city where 5th of November bonfires began, before spreading around the country and beyond – hopefully their demise nationally will not follow a similar pattern.

This year my family and I supported our local bonfire at Adel St John the Baptist Primary School. A family ticket cost £12.50, which is certainly more expensive than the voluntary donations at bonfires that I remember from my childhood, but it did go towards an excellent bonfire (all clean wood) that burned throughout the event, a superb firework display that lasted a good 20 minutes, along with the hiring of portable lighting, tents and gazebos. This event also featured inflatable rides, and food and beverage stalls – all of which raise valuable revenue from the event for the school. It was good to see that despite the inclement weather that the local community had supported the event well.

Spectators watch the Adel school bonfire behind a cordon and stewards in high-vis vests

Bonfire night is a uniquely English cultural community celebration, and whilst the way by which it is celebrated has changed since 1605, the centrepiece bonfire has survived in the majority of localities. It would be a shame to lose this, and I would urge everyone to support their local bonfires, in order to keep alive this English culturtainment spectacle.

The firework display is contained in the video below:


Love Clapham. (2009) Clapham Common fireworks. [Internet] Clapham, Love Clapham. URL available from: Accessed 7th November, 2009.

Moss, S. (2009) Culturtainment. Pp. 294-312, in Moss, S. (ed) (2009) The entertainment industry: an introduction. Wallingford, CABI.

Sayers, S. (2009) The halloween feast. in O'Donnell H. & Foley M. (eds) (2009) Treat or trick? Halloween in a globalising world. Cambridge, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.