The number of Bonfire Night celebrations looks to be on the wane. Local authority cuts combined with the rise of Halloween as an alternative, seems to have decimated our enthusiastic for the most British of traditions. Londonist has no events listed for Greenwich, Kensington & Chelsea, Hackney or Islington. Lewisham continues our lone support for the huge Blackheath fireworks display (after Greenwich Council helpfully pulled out). Once a festival mandated by law through the “Thanksgiving Act” of 1606, are we witnessing the slow death of Bonfire Night?
This could be a reaction against what is seen as an anti-Catholic festival, out of step with contemporary multicultural Britain. A point made by historian David Cannadine:
“But although it’s been around for much longer, the prospects don’t look quite as good for Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night once this anniversary is past. Britain is not the Protestant nation it was when I was young: it is now a multi-faith society. And the Americanised Halloween is sweeping all before it – a vivid reminder of just how powerfully American culture and American consumerism can be transported across the Atlantic.”
But is the modern Bonfire Night particularly anti-Catholic any more? My Roman Catholic primary school, for instance, celebrated Bonfire Night. As the BBC notes:
“Roman Catholic opposition to the event has never been very vocal – it’s not unusual to find fireworks displays run by RC schools or churches. In fact, fireworks night is for most people just another excuse for a party, and most of the event’s political connotations have been sloughed off. In this context, burning an effigy on a fire seems a bit, well, surplus to requirements.”
Not only do we increasingly celebrate the American importation of Halloween, the Hollywood version of Guy Fawkes has been imported back to our shores too. Guy Fawkes, the traitor who attempted to destroy our parliament, has been reborn as the heroic anti-totalitarian figure of ‘V’ from the film ‘V for Vendetta‘ (who wears a Guy Fawkes mask throughout the film). The mask, and by implication Guy Fawkes, is now a symbol of popular resistance, used by libertarian and anarchist figures from Julian Assange through to the hacking collective Anonymous. David Lloyd, the co-author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, argues: “The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way.” If Guy Fawkes is now a hero, celebrating his death and the foiling of his plans, seems questionable.
Finally, there is what we think of the act of blowing up Parliament. When Parliament burnt down in 1834, huge crowds lined the streets and by the banks of the Thames to cheer the fire that engulfed and destroyed 500 years of parliamentary history. As chronicled by Caroline Shenton’s The Day Parliament Burned Down, popular opinion saw the destruction of parliament as visible punishment for the institution’s cruel Poor Law Act of the same year. Now, only 7% of the public trust politicians and as Russell Brand has highlighted, there is a serious democratic deficit. Perhaps, 400 years on, our lack of enthusiasm for celebrating the thwarting of this act of political terrorism, reflects on our lack of faith in the current political system.