Edenbridge in Kent made headlines this weekend by burning, instead of Guy Fawkes, a 30-foot effigy of the disgraced American cyclist, Lance Armstrong. The town is one of the increasing numbers of communities where Guy Fawkes is sidelined in favour of a more topical victim. Much of this current-agenda burning goes on in East Sussex, in the orbit of the spectacular bonfire at Battle, where the essentially pagan pyromania of the British explodes in full, frightening force. (Although this year, the celebrations were scaled back because of muddy conditions underfoot).
But to come back to Kent. In the past, Edenbridge has burned Wayne Rooney, Cherie Blair, Gordon Brown and Katie Price, a list that mainly begs the question “Why?”, since all those individuals have been more or less rehabilitated following whatever transgressions triggered their incineration.
Edenbridge had considered immolating Jimmy Savile, but feared embarrassing questions from five-year-olds (though the Price effigy was sporting a Jim’ll Fix It badge). As a potential long-term replacement for Guy Fawkes, however, Savile has real possibilities. I mean, he was a Catholic to start with, which is handy. He may not have planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament (although it would be wrong to prejudge the coming inquiries), but he certainly looked more evil than the rather dapper Guy Fawkes, and as for inquisitive five-year-olds, they could just be told, “He was a very, very bad man, and if you don’t shut up and go to sleep he will jolly well come and FIX IT for you”.
The trouble with all this is that’s hard to locate a solid, left-liberal perspective. You could say it was elitist to burn Guy Fawkes, since the ceremony assumes some knowledge of British history. I recall the bonfires of my 1970s’ childhood staged by the local Boy Scouts. There, you got a serviette with your toffee apple, and in that Top of The Form ambience, the Guy was authentic down to his conical hat and buckled shoes. On the other hand, the new effigies are often just transient products of popular culture.
Then again, though, Guy Fawkes is now, in another context, a highly marketed mass-produced consumer product himself, in that smirking Guy Fawkes masks are worn internationally by anti-capitalist protesters... Which is somewhat ironic, given that the rights to the masks are owned by Time Warner, who made the film V for Vendetta, in which the mask first appeared, and it receives a royalty for each one. But better perhaps to burn a celebrity of any sort than “real” people. (There was a big fuss a few years ago when a representation of a gypsy caravan was burnt at Firle in Sussex.)
Perhaps the way to short-circuit this agonising is to say that Bonfire Night and Trick or Treating both stem from the anarchic medieval customs of misrule, the Feast of Fools and World-Turned-Upside-Down. The chattering classes were not supposed to like any of it.