A fireworks-free society?
First they came for Guy Fawkes Night, then for Halloween. The sanitisation police risk turning autumn festivals into pretty damp squibs.
Sometimes it’s the little things that reveal a lot about the times in which we live. Such as, for example, the signs which appear in many British shop windows at this time of year, announcing that, on police advice, they will refuse to sell eggs or flour to anybody aged under 18 until after Halloween on 31 October. Such a regular display of official intolerance for wheat and dairy products looks like a symptom of a dyspeptic society that apparently cannot stomach any youthful outbreak of wind.
First the youth of Britain were barred from access to the cheap fireworks, notably bangers, that once formed their staple entertainment in the run-up to Guy Fawkes Night, 5 November. Now in parts of the country such as my north-east London borough they are effectively banned from buying cooking ingredients before Halloween, on the pretext that some might use eggs and flour to ‘batter’ the innocent (geddit?).
Perhaps some folk have had their homes egged-and-floured by disgruntled trick-or-treaters (I was once the victim of a drive-by egging myself). But so what? If even the possibility of some teens playing up is enough to have the police drop everything and launch an annual war on flour, we are in a sorry state of affairs.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not much care about the future of Halloween, which is largely a pumpkin-flavoured pain in the neck for parents such as us and the dreadful parties we have to host. But some of us do still care about the culture of fear and the petty authoritarianism it gives rise to.
The thing that strikes me is that Halloween became popular in the UK in recent years as a supposedly safer, more infantile substitute for the raucous carnival of bonfires and fireworks that was the traditional Guy Fawkes night, replacing explosions and mini-riots with apple-bobbing and costumed kiddies asking neighbours for sweeties. Yet over the past few years it seems that even this has been deemed too much for the Brits, as scares spread about trick-or-treating children potentially being both victims (paedophiles with sweeties) and villains (pensioners with eggs on their faces), who should be either kept indoors or alternatively locked up.
A bit of jumpers-for-goalposts. It might be worth indulging in a moment of cultural nostalgia to remind ourselves of how far things have changed (that’s my high-minded excuse anyway). I did not grow up in a cardboard box on the side of the road in the bad old days like the Monty Python Yorkshiremen, but in the sedate suburban south-east in the 1960s and 70s. Yet compared to what is expected of teenagers today, it seems more like the Wild West. I grew up with well-raised boys who amused themselves and everybody else around bonfire night by throwing bangers (now banned) at cats and one another, and firing rockets at bedroom windows. If they were caught they would expect a clip round the ear from their father – or the neighbours. As younger boys we raised money for fireworks by sitting unsupervised on the street with a ‘Guy’ – an old shirt stuffed with newspaper – asking complete strangers to give us a penny for it. And nobody got nicked either for demanding money with menaces, or grooming. At the end of this ‘high-risk’ upbringing, my peers turned out as normal adults. (Well, most of them anyway…)
Guy Fawkes night was traditionally of course a popular carnival to mark the defeat of the 1605 gunpowder plot, when Fawkes and his fellow Catholic conspirators tried to blow up the houses of parliament and King James I. ‘Remember, remember the Fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot’, went the famous rhyme, ‘I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot’.
Yet forgotten it has been in a sense, not only as an historical monument but more recently as an occasion for letting rip. Of course there are still many fireworks displays around 5 November, mostly highly regulated affairs where professional pyrotechnicians ignite rockets the size of artillery shells, while children are banned from waving little sparklers about. But the wild spirit of Guy Fawkes night has been largely extinguished. There are few bonfires around these days, and even towns such as Lewes in Sussex that try to keep alive the barrels-of-fire and flaming torchlit traditions have come under pressure from the health-and-safety police. (Though any that still insist on maintaining the anti-Catholic tradition of burning an effigy of the Pope might just find themselves in fashion again, following this year’s outburst of inflammatory liberal intolerance during his visit to the UK.)
Four hundred years after Guy Fawkes was hanged, drawn and quartered, the New Labour government took it upon itself to bury Guy Fawkes night for good. In 2003, the Fireworks Act barred under-18s from buying or even handling fireworks. It limited the sale and use of fireworks to certain times of the day and introduced a compulsory permit for public displays. Fireworks can now not be used between 11pm and 7am: on four festivals, Guy Fawkes night, Diwali, New Year’s eve and Chinese New Year, we are allowed an extra couple of hours of fun. The 2003 Act made it a crime not to obey the new fireworks rules, an offence punishable on summary conviction by up to six months’ imprisonment or a fine of up to £5,000.
We have come a long way from the old safety instructions to ‘Light the blue touchpaper and retire’. Yet still campaigners such as ‘Ban the Bang’ want loud fireworks outlawed altogether, in the name of animal welfare of course but in effect to police untamed human enjoyment. (See Fireworks: the killjoys’ pet hate, by Barry Curtis). A telling exchange took place this week between coalition government ministers and officials of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), who have planned industrial action for Guy Fawkes Night next weekend. Politicians from Tory prime minister David Cameron downwards lined up to condemn the ‘irresponsible’ plan for strike action on such a busy night (yes, I mean, trade unionists should only go on strike over cuts when it is least effective and nobody will notice, right?). But the response from the London organiser of the FBU revealed that, in the eyes of the fire experts, Guy Fawkes night is no longer such a big deal: ‘Maybe 20 years ago Bonfire Night was a big, really busy night but today I think it’s a symbolic night more than a night where people’s lives are in danger.’
So a popular festival of fireworks and fun has been reduced to a safely ‘symbolic’ and closely-stewarded display. In its place we have witnessed the rise of Halloween in the UK – indeed my niece’s school has just shifted their annual firework display to Halloween weekend. This change has often been blamed on the Americanisation and commercialisation of British culture, and no doubt there is some truth in that. But it also reflects the sanitisation of our public life.
However, the new cult of Halloween could not end the rise of the culture of fear. The trouble for those who hoped to see fireworks replaced by fancy dress parties was that Halloween was also supposed to involve trick or treating, where children go from door to door demanding sweets. So having imported Halloween traditions from the States, the Halloween capital of the world, we also imported the new Halloween panics that were starting there, about youngsters being both at risk and running wild. Thus we have ended up with a pale ghost of Halloween where young children go trick-or-treating accompanied by their parents in city streets where few strangers will open their doors to them after dark, while teenagers are supposed to go in fear of being caught in possession of eggs with intent.
What all of this reveals is not so much a society afraid of fireworks or flour bombs, as one fearful of its own young people and of unregulated displays of public excitement. The official worry is that any mix of people, especially across the generations, could prove volatile. The coalition government may have pledged to reconsider the use of New Labour’s Anti-Social Behaviour Orders against young people, but the spirit of the ASBO still rules. These all look like small signs on the road to a life without fireworks of the passionate kind, in a dull conformist society. Little wonder perhaps that the crisis has not detonated any explosive response as yet.
Yes, fireworks can be dangerous. But killjoyism involves dangers of its own. Some will protest that teenagers really can be horrible little toerags. Of course they can – none more so than my own obnoxious generation of teens. But this is no way to teach them any better. Compared to the now-annual displays of panic, paranoia and petty-minded policing, the old traditions of tossing bangers around in return for a swift clip round the ear seem almost enlightened.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large at spiked.