A Week in Books: The consuming passions stoked by the human quest for fire

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The Independent Culture

For at least a week before this Fifth of November, much of inner London resembled a war zone. Clear, still nights amplified and spotlit every boom and flash set off (preferably at 2am or later) by kids whose admiration for the pyrotechnician's art evidently trailed a long way behind their zeal to recreate the sensory conditions of Beirut in the Seventies or Grozny in the Nineties.

For at least a week before this Fifth of November, much of inner London resembled a war zone. Clear, still nights amplified and spotlit every boom and flash set off (preferably at 2am or later) by kids whose admiration for the pyrotechnician's art evidently trailed a long way behind their zeal to recreate the sensory conditions of Beirut in the Seventies or Grozny in the Nineties.

Quite how you would explain all this to the average, curious Afghan refugee perplexes me. You might say that two politico-religious factions battled for control of these islands over a period of 150 years; and that almost half way through that long tussle, a fringe group of the eventual losing side schemed to wipe out their foes' state power with a spectacular terrorist strike. Betrayed, watched and captured, the plotters were gruesomely tortured and barbarously put to death in public as a propaganda coup. Stevie Davies's A Century of Conflict (published by Channel 4 at £18.99 to accompany its excellent series) has a strong account of Robert Catesby's hopelessly leaky plot, and Robert Cecil's shrewd stage-management of it.

And so, for ever after, the commemoration of this bloody intrigue in fire and powder has rated as the finest late-autumn fun. Meanwhile, the tribal elders transformed the event into what Simon Schama – in the second companion volume to his BBC "History of Britain" series, The British Wars – calls "the Protestant holy day par excellence, the new 'birth-day of the nation'". Just to show that the political fuel behind the flames can still ignite, the Lewes Bonfire Society this week substituted bin Laden for that other lean and shaggy extremist, Guy Fawkes.

Anyone bemused or repelled by the official agenda behind the booms has always been able to forget the statecraft, and relish instead the glorious survival of a north European pagan fire-festival to mark the onset of winter. Both bonfires and fireworks celebrate the control and direction of burning: the Promethean feat that makes civilisation and (as we now know better than ever) may break it too. But can an element – as opposed to people who use and misuse it – have a history of its own?

To devote your career to writing the global history of fire might look, to the researchers who still can't decide what happened in November 1605, like folly bordering on madness. Yet one American historian, Stephen J Pyne, has spent a generation doing just that. A professor at Arizona State University, Pyne walks the walk as well as talking the talk, serving for years as a volunteer firefighter in his combustible region.

It was Simon Schama, a huge admirer of Stephen Pyne, who first alerted me to his marathon endeavours. But his vast five-volume "Cycle of Fire" sequence has only reached Britain as expensive, and elusive, imports. This week, British Museum Press offers an accessible taster in the shape of Pyne's Fire: a brief history (£15.99), a 200-page summary of his epic labours. Pyne records that his elder daughter Lydia was born during the writing of the first part of his cycle, and that she helped to edit this new book.

Pyne writes environmental history with a radiant grandeur that matches his theme. His narratives sweep across millennia and continents to trace the movement from "First Fire" (natural combustion and the ad hoc use that early humans made of it), through the "Second Fire" of agricultural settlement and on to the industrial "Third Fire", with its massive extraction of finite fossil fuels. Fire: a brief history can only sample his method rather than show it in all its blazing power, but it might at least inflame some UK publisher to re-issue his work.

"Our prolonged crash into the biosphere has been, above all, a long burn," concludes Pyne, after a closing chapter that looks forward to a more sustainable ecology of flame. The human species, he argues, can simply be defined as a "planetary fire force", for good and (often) ill. Even a brief exposure to his intellectual ardour means that you'll never look at a bonfire in the same light again.

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