Saturday, 1 November 2008

As The Sparks Fly Up

I've always liked Autumn, it's my favourite season. I always look forward to that first dark, cold night with an edge of frost and smoke to the air, when you think "Bonfire Night is coming soon!" One of the advantages of having kids is that you get another chance to do the things you loved when you were small, except this time you get to choose the fireworks. However, Autumn also always plunges me into deep nostalgia (and, as the joke goes, even nostalgia is not what it was).

So-called Guy Fawkes Night is supposed to be all about remembering, of course. "Remember, remember, the 5th of November, Gunpowder, treason and plot!" I can't speak for the inhabitants of, say, Belfast, Liverpool or Glasgow, but I don't think the anti-Catholic element in the celebration has been particularly prominent in living memory. You don't have to be a neopagan to think that a bonfire festival at this time of year has deeper roots and resonances, and it is notable that November 5th falls midway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, and thus is the likely real date of the Celtic Samhain festival.

What I remember, and miss most, are the fires. In the 1950s and 60s, it seemed that the children of every household would have scavenged every scrap of combustible material for miles around to build a bonfire heap at the end of every garden, together with an enormous communal pyre on any suitable green or wasteland. By 9 o'clock the smoke was drifting in thick layers illuminated by fires, flashes and streetlamps. You could point a torch up, and its clear-cut beam was a stiff, smoky wedge like an anti-aircraft spotlight. In our town -- a New Town almost entirely populated by people cleared from the slums of East London, devastated in the Blitz a mere decade or so before-- particularly strong memories and emotions were evoked by the sights, smells and sounds. The War was the invisible guest at everyone's party. Or perhaps, The Wars. The mustachioed "guy" that burned on everyone's bonfire was Hitler, was Napoleon, was Fawkes, was the King of Spain, was Harald Hardrada, was Caesar: every bogeyman who ever chanced his arm against the truculent tribes of this island. It was a night for telling tales, as rockets crackled and popped overhead, and the potatoes baked in the embers. "Swinging the lamp", as my father called it.

Pretty much gone now, I'm sad to say. Health & safety and anti-smoke legislation, and the invasion of that alien festival Hallowe'en have sapped the strength out of Bonfire Night. There are still fireworks, of course, and public bonfires, but somehow the point of it all has been lost, when children don't spend the preceding weeks scouring the woods for sticks, or making stuffed guys to beg pennies for fireworks. The tribal memories are somehow weaker, too: "How I endured the Great House Price Collapse of 1987" is hardly a tale worth lighting a fire for. Our world seems thinner, more disposable, slightly fake; even the weather no longer lives up to the occasion, and every year the frosts that make the moon shine and the equinoctial gales that shake the sticks and conkers down seem to come a little later.

But I have to resist this melancholy slide, or I'll end up thinking about Christmas (difficult to resist, now that the mince pies have appeared in Tesco). I'm probably just getting old: birthdays don't really cut it any more, either. I suppose the paradox is that the better life gets, the more widely Good Things are available to more of us, the less sweet they seem to taste. We can get bored with the uniform excellence of our lives, and yearn for a time when excellence was tasted but two or three times a year. Nostalgie de la boue is an aristocratic taste which we can all now afford to have.

November 5th 2007 on Lyme Regis Beach

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