Over 400 years of tradition is coming to an end in London:- the public celebration of Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night.
Of course there are still some fireworks shows to go to, but these are now (with one or two exceptions) tightly-controlled, ticket-only, paid events. And they are displays of fireworks, disassociated from the ‘gunpowder, treason and plot’ of the rhyme; Guy-less, ahistorical.
Ten years ago one could – and I did – watch the free fireworks on Clapham Common and see in the distance the rockets from Lambeth’s other free shows in Brockwell Park and Tooting Bec. After cutting back these shows from three to one, this year Lambeth have axed the fireworks completely. In Wandsworth the free fireworks across the borough were condensed into the expensive Battersea Park event years ago, and it’s a similar story in Wimbledon and across the rest of the capital.
The causes are multiple: safety, with the sale of ‘domestic’ fireworks being restricted, but also the extra costs and insurance for organisers of public displays. Then there is the post-2008 austerity, with local authorities finding it hard to justify the expense of entertainment (although the extra business for bars and restaurants around Clapham Common on a fireworks night was not insignificant, and I’d also contend that adding a little joy to people’s lives is a worthwhile aim for any council).
Then there is the competition of halloween, once just a small-scale evening for kids. The commercial exploitation of this sees retailers pushing all manner of goods for most of October. Bonfire night was never a retail opportunity for supermarkets.
This has meant that those 5 November evenings when a mist of wood smoke and sulphur rolled across the capital are gone forever, and a line stretching back to the ‘bone-fires’ of the 1600s is broken.
And in fact the line is probably even longer than this. Ironically, ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ on 5th November took over the earlier All Hallows celebrations of 1 November, when fires were lit to symbolically ward off the dark of winter (and the metaphorical winter of death).
So next week go and buy the biggest rocket you can afford, light the biggest bonfire you can get away with, and lift a glass to Guido, Catesby, and the others.