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Bonfire tradition leaves a sour taste

I worry that there is something a bit masochistic in the first question that I asked friends who attended the Lewes Bonfire night – ‘Did you see David Cameron and Nick Clegg being burnt?’ Don’t get excited – not the real things of course, but a giant tongue in cheek effigy of the Prime Minister towering over the House of Commons and brandishing a puppet resembling his Lib Dem sidekick. You’re more likely these days to hear ‘Penny for Wayne Rooney’ than ‘Penny for the Guy’, with bonfire societies across the country excitedly revealing their next victims each year. Anyone who knows me is aware that I love to complain about the coalition government, and it’s clear that this was done in a light hearted spirit, but isn’t there something a bit sinister about the growing tradition of burning a different celebrity’s likeness every 5 November? 

The tradition of bonfire night is one that we have cherished in this country for years, even if the concept of watching things explode and setting things alight is a little bit bizarre. My memories are still vivid of the annual trek to the fireworks night held at my primary school where, on arriving, I would force my parents to buy me some sparklers before running into the nearest classroom and crying because it was too loud and demand to be taken home immediately. Guy Fawkes, the religious terrorist that attempted to blow up Parliament and the man himself that gifted us this bemusing tradition, has gained a form of admirable notoriety in popular culture today, even if we do continue to burn a version of him made from old clothes and straw each year. He has recently been granted the prefix ‘the only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions’ and his ghost is evident in every frame of the recent political thriller, ‘V for Vendetta’. It seems that, as time has gone by, Fawkes is regarded affectionately, rather than with condemnation.

Why, then, do we subject this line up of tabloid fodder to a ritualistic burning that we all cruelly observe with pleasure? I’m not trying to suggest that the members of the Edenbridge and Lewes bonfire society hold it in their true intentions to subject Rooney, Cameron and Clegg to a slow, fiery demise, but there seems to be a quiet, mutual feeling of approval, a smugness of ‘oh yes, aren’t they awful’ that comes from such a practise. Knowing the horrifying extent with which we consume celebrity culture in the present day, this new tradition seems to epitomise what it is we do in this country – build people up, and then bring them back down again. Who will next year’s victim be? Barack Obama? The winner of this year’s X Factor? We watch these people beginning their journey into the world of power and success and we seem, initially, to will them on – until we discover that inevitably they don’t match up to our expectations, and an overwhelming sense of disappointment gives way to sometimes powerful projections of malice.

Past victims of this explosive end have been Cherie Blair, John McCricick, Katie Price and Gordon Brown. It’s fair to say that most people will read one of those names and immediately respond to it with a feeling that can only be described as ‘Oh God’. The problem is that it’s difficult to complain about over exposure when, in taking part in or witnessing these events and willing them on, we simply add to that exposure even more. A member of the Edenbridge bonfire society, when asked why they wanted to burn Katie Price, replied, “We are only doing this for the fun of it. We are not doing it because we don’t like the lady or anything like that.” It seems hard to qualify these remarks against the national feeling of derision for a woman that, although we can’t be sure of exactly what she does for a living, we see on the front pages of magazines every week. In this line up of well-known faces we see a group of pantomime villains, people that have done no real harm but cause us minor annoyance. The Edenbridge bonfire society declared that they would not use an effigy of Nick Griffin because it would be ‘too political’, despite, in the past, making Saddam Hussein the object of their disapproval.

If we are going to gather together in this almost medieval fashion and watch last month’s tabloid sweetheart burn to the ground, perhaps we should think again. Maybe we should turn off our televisions, not buy any magazines, and concern ourselves with some of the more pressing issues that we currently face. This new tradition is evidently formed from a long lasting, universal need to vent our spleens, but when you think about it a little more deeply, it something that feels quite sour and unnecessary. Wayne Rooney isn’t worrying about us, and I think it’s safe to say that we really shouldn’t worry about him.

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