“Fireworks, explain?” asked one American, as we walked down Market Street, our conversation irregularly punctuated by explosive cracks and radiant flashes of colour. The concept of Guy Fawkes night seemed perplexing, as it celebrates the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, Guy Fawkes’ eponymous attempt to kill King James I by destroying the House of Lords.
While fireworks and effigy-topped bonfires are common nationwide, the Lewes Bonfire tops most festivities. Celebrating both Guy Fawkes night and commemorating the 17 Lewes martyrs, flaming barrels of tar are pulled down the street and thrown into the river while the Riot Act is read aloud. Effigies of contemporary villains from the likes of Kim Jong-Un to Donald Trump, David Cameron and his sidekick Sepp Blatter, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, and others are torched upon bonfires in their celebrations. The curious occasion is frankly bizarre, tarnished by some sectarian connotations, with previous Lewes Bonfires including effigies of the pope. The heat from the raging bonfires across the town combines with the warmth of the atmosphere to produce a truly unique event, and a firefighter’s nightmare.
Bonfires and campfires seem archaic in a modern setting, once a source of light, which helped keep nocturnal predators at bay, and heat for warmth and cooking (evidence of cooked food dates back 1.9 million years). Outdoor fires now seem like a purposeless, antediluvian endeavour destined to result in injury or death. Yet the communal value we bestow upon such an experience is phenomenal. Naturally, in contemporary life, little time is spent by the fire. Despite this, the moments we spend at them constitute something special, a time for music, enthralling stories, and developing relationships. These moments seem otherworldly, made better by an eclectic mix of people, unified in an awareness of our insignificance among the stars while, as anthropologist Polly Wiessener notes, flickering flames soften facial expressions and agendas of the quotidien are set aside for fantastic tales. During the day the Ju’hoansi tribe conversed about economics and social relations in 75 per cent of their discussions; whereas during the night, singing, dancing, and storytelling composed 81 per cent of the time by the fire. From an anthropological perspective, human cognition and culture has been associated with campfires. Such interactions date back 400,000 years, shaping our songs and narratives. Fires remain a romantic setting for intimate conversation and stories. Our enthusiasm for such experiences is still alive today.
In Australia and New Zealand, fires are synonymous with the outback and the fraught relationship European colonialists have with them. Inspiring dreams and evoking memories, they remain a nostalgic reverie of the past. In the harsh environment of the outback, they signify a domestication of nature, a constant trope of the colonial ideal. Though the connection is oblique, nationalist images are associated with the bush backdrop of the campfire. The Australian context also provides the exhilarating risk of devastation, as seen in campaigns to remind people to extinguish fires, taming nature to “make fire your servant, not your master.” For many people, making a fire allows them to act out an exercise of the past, overcoming nature as part of the myth of humanity, demonstrating our control and triumph over it. This is despite the fact that studies show that our ancestors, Homo erectus, mastered this art long before we did.
Fires were the epicentre of our community, our blood pressure naturally lowers when we are near them, a sign of the comfort we derive from them. No wonder they are still alive and well in St Andrews to this day. Bonfires, entirely legal under Scottish law on the foreshores of beaches, are popular across societies and social groups, and are used in a multitude of celebrations.
The latest bonfire I experienced was at a friend’s birthday. We started at 9:30 pm when a small hole was dug in torchlight, with wood then added. Sadly the paper and kindling began to catch, only to burn out with cyclicality in the damp sand. However, the kindling eventually caught, which began the unbounded debate: how to stack the wood.
“Do a triangle, it gets more air in”, someone suggested. “No! It’ll collapse, go from the outside in.” “No, you’re suffocating the fire, blow air in.” “That log won’t catch, it’s not hot enough, the wood’s too damp.” “I did scouts, I think I know what I’m doing.”
Onlookers marvelled, not at the fire but the petty display of masculinity, notably the boys of the group saw it as their responsibility to take control of the situation. The rest were engrossed in conversation, the celebration, and avoiding the billowing smoke and embers of the restless fire which was continually the victim of tinkering and poking. Quickly the coterie of friends became complete, the latecomers admiring the flames, much to the delight of those who claimed responsibility.
A small aside, the most commonly advised method of starting a campfire is as follows. Place your tinder in the centre, newspaper will do. Above this form a “tepee” of kindling, at the same time leaving openings for the wind to come in. On top of this form, construct a larger tepee of fuel wood, keeping the air gaps at the side. Finally, light the tinder and demonstrate your truly astonishing command of the forces of nature. Balance out the need for fuel, oxygen, and heat by starting small, using the driest fuel and a structure that is as tall as it is wide.
The experience felt discernibly earthly, as we stood with our backs to the cold, lapping waves. The bold yellow flames licked upwards, people’s faces shimmered in the warm light as the gold vermillion embers danced upwards. Within a couple of hours, other places beckoned, so we let the flames cease and then scattered and buried the glowing embers, collecting the remainder of our firewood for another such occasion.
Bonfires also take on a bleaker, more political significance. In Northern Ireland, on the “Eleventh Night” of July, bonfires are seen fiercely burning in protestant/loyalist neighbourhoods. The marching bands and fires celebrate the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the victory of William of Orange over catholic King James II in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, an event that began the protestant ascendance of Ireland. The occasions are usually strongly sectarian with republican symbols such as the Irish tricolour and symbols of catholicism burnt upon huge fires of wooden pallets daubed with anti-republican slogans and often the images of Sinn Féin political leaders and candidates. The towering flames are a powerful symbol of the persistent sectarianism found in Northern Ireland, striking fear in local catholic communities. Some fires also cause incident due to their location and volume with court orders issued to reduce the size of some, often resulting in clashes with police as Loyalists defend them as an integral part of their culture. Pictures taken from the top of Cave Hill in Belfast show a dramatic scene where the lights of the city appear dim against the multitude of large lustrous fires, a film of smoking sitting low atop the city.
Politics notwithstanding, wood fires are also incredibly damaging to the natural environment. The period of which Guy Fawkes night is celebrated, often involving the weekend before, puts more dioxins and carbon into the atmosphere than the majority of industries do in a year. The contribution of wood burning to air pollution is significant, with compounds such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, benzene, and other toxic volatile organic compounds released. It is therefore clear that the disposal of garden waste by bonfire is inadvisable. But should this really stop you having the occasional fire at a celebration? That is a fiery debate which lacks a clean-cut answer.
Bonfires will always hold a strong communal significance, whether linked to specific cultural celebrations or for smaller gatherings. The shift from sterile electric light to the natural glimmering of flames triggers a psychological change, an awareness of our place in the world and the human condition. Our culture has been shaped by these experiences and the communal element of it appear to be a permanent feature.
Most St Andrews societies organise bonfires, impossible at most other universities, and though they may seem like a strange place for a large gathering, you are overlooking a fantastic experience if you dismiss them. Do take care to put your fire out and clean-up afterwards, and it should go without a hitch. Try not to burn yourself.