Tuesday 2 November 2010

Bonfire of the absurdities

Every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction, so said Sir Isaac Newton. He forgot to add that this is a general principle, applying to far more than the laws of physics. I mentioned in a recent blog that Dominic Sandbrook was in favour of scrapping Halloween in favour of the more ‘traditional’ English festival of Bonfire Night. Now Frank Skinner, a comedian of sorts (the principle here being that humour and wit have virtually nothing to do with comedy in its modern form), has called for the scrapping of Bonfire Night!

Writing in the Times on Friday (Let’s not remember the Fifth of November), Skinner comes out with the usual po-faced garbage, from concerns over elf ‘n’ safety to how awful it must be for Catholics to witness this appalling outburst of Protestant ‘hysteria.’

Let me just repeat, for those not familiar with the basic facts, that Bonfire Night recalls the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, an act of potential terrorism in English history not paralleled even in the present day, in which a group of Catholic conspirators planned to blow up Parliament during the state-opening, thereby in the process killing the king and most of the governing classes of England. The political chaos that would have resulted is almost unimaginable.

The conspirators were headed by one Robin Catesby though the enterprise has long been associated with Guy Fawkes, a soldier and explosives expert. The discovery of the plot was the cause of an immediate anti-Catholic reaction, recalled in a traditional rhyme;

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, 'twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow
By God's providence he was catched
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holloa boys, holloa boys
God save the King!
Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray!

A penny loaf to feed ol' Pope
A farthing cheese to choke him
A pint of beer to rinse it down
A faggot of sticks to burn him
Burn him in a tub of tar
Burn him like a blazing star
Burn his body from his head
Then we'll say ol' Pope is dead.
Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray!

Now most people, if they know this rhyme at all, will be unable to proceed beyond the first few lines, almost certainly no further than To blow up the King and the Parliament. The inclusion of the Pope, and by implication all Catholics, is quite unfair, as the pontiff of the day, Paul V, was quick to express his disapproval. Acting on his instructions, the Archpriest George Blackwell issued a statement denouncing the Plot as “intolerable, scandalous and desperate”, going on to say that “private violent attempts could never be justified. Catholics must not support them in any way.”

No matter; Catholics were established in popular imagination as potential traitors, liable to all sorts of nefarious schemes, a suspicion that was to emerge later in the century in the Popish Plot. Even today, in the great bonfire held every year at Lewes in East Sussex, an effigy of Pope Paul is burned alongside that of Guy Fawkes.

Does this matter? No, of course it doesn’t; the Guy is burnt, the Pope is burnt, but so, too, is all residual passion. I have no way of penetrating the consciousness of other people but I think it fairly reasonable to deduce that those who attend the Lewes festival, or any other bonfire celebration across the land, harbour little in the way of anti-Catholic sentiment. I’m sure a great many Catholics also take part because – and this is the point completely missed by Skinner – the whole thing is about fun, not bigotry. In Northern Ireland, where such feelings might still rest, Bonfire Night isn’t even celebrated.

I’m so tired of political correctness, the modern disease, a disease of limited imaginations. Modern, I say, but it’s really another residue of seventeenth century Puritanism, with the ghastly Skinners of this world coming along, fingers wagging, saying thou shall not, because thou may very well upset some geek or other. Sandbrook, as I say, wants to displace Halloween in favour of Bonfire Night. And what about Skinner, what’s his alternative offering? Why, it’s Valentine’s Day;

Maybe we could broaden out Valentine’s Day as a replacement. It might be a nice change to celebrate love – romantic, parental, interfaith –instead of a 400 year old hate.

This, for me, brings on a distinct sick bucket moment. Let’s all be lovey-dovey, drape ourselves in pink and sentiment, reciting machine-written, saccharine verse while tucking in to a tofu casserole; or let’s have danger, excitement and tradition: fires and bangers; bangers and mash. I know which way I go. Even now I’m planning to burn an effigy of Frank Skinner on my bonfire of all the absurdities.


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  4. It's tiresome, this sort of thing, as predictable as the first cuckoo of spring. The next attack I expect to see will be on Christmas, or is it Winterval now? :-))

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  6. I once lived in Hastings and worked in Lewes, so I have fond memories of Bonfire frolics. Hastings now has its bonfire in mid-October, so as not to compete with the Lewes event so near.

    I must say I'm all in favour of traditional celebrations, whatever their origins. Any pretext for a party . . . they all celebrate life. By all means let us celebrate St. Valentine's Day too; perhaps we could reenact the notorious Chicago massacre, substituting miserable old buggers like Skinner for bootleggers?

    I'm not a huge admirer of Xmas per se, but, fortunately, the season coincides (not really by accident) with the Winter Solstice and Saturnalia which are both perfectly good reasons for a roaring fire and a feast.

  7. Not at all by accident, Calvin. The early Christians understood that they had to build one party on another. Oh, I like your Valentine's Day suggestion, the festival of Juno, incidentally. :-)

  8. See, if there is one line of Stephen Fry 's worth quoting (and I think there is: but it is just the one) it is this:

    "You're offended?: So fucking what?".

    The last thing we Catholics need is for self-appointed spokespeople to start adopting an aggrieved and unwarrantedly self-important persona on trivial matters like this.

    I've always loved Guy Fawkes night. Such a pity that one no longer seems to see kids doing the whole "Penny for the guy" thing any more. (Not least as it appears to represent a form of cheeky paedo-begging with a bit more historical knowledge thrown in (like the allusion to St Catherine of Siena elsewhere on the 5th) than the whole "trick or treat" scam. 20, 25 years ago (i.e. "when I was a lad"), in my bit of East London, it was commonplace. And nowadays, in London, anyway, there are so many free newspapers and multifarious publications that are in some cases custom-made for making the filling of a guy.

  9. Thanks, Dominic, a particularly welcome contribution. :-)

  10. I haven't been in the UK for Bonfire Night for decades, but I remember it as a teenager. We used to make our own gunpowder bombs.

    Still, there are compensations: the world's best new year fireworks display is only six weeks away.

    I didn't realize that Frank Skinner was a comedian. I thought he was just a twat who talked shite and had a high opinion of himself.