Tom Hodgkinson: 'A good bonfire still brings us together'


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Everyone loves a bonfire and now is the time to build one. In olde England, midsummer fires were traditionally held on the eve of the Feast of St John the Baptist on 24 June. These were occasions for music and dancing. One Elizabethan ballad testifies: "When midsomer comes, with bavens and bromes, they do bonfires make /And swiftly then, the nimble young men runne leapinge over the same / The women and maydens together do couple their handes / With bagpipes sounde, they daunce a rounde; no malice among them standes."

The bonfire was thought to purify and protect. It also bonded communities. A 16th-century description of the custom by the historian John Stow stresses the unifying and healing nature of such fires: "...they would invite their neighbours and passengers also to sit, and be merry with them in great familiarity, praising God for his benefits bestowed on them. These were called bonfires as well of good amity amongst neighbours that, being before at controversy, were there by the labour of others reconciled, and made of bitter enemies, loving friends."

But zealous 16th-century Protestants objected to such rites. The bonfire had pagan and even Popish associations to these reforming Christians, the utilitarians of their day. In 1561, the clerics of Canterbury condemned bonfires for being "in contempt of the Christian religion, and for upholding the old frantic superstitions of papistry". And in 1541, Henry VIII had cancelled the traditional payment for building a midsummer fire in his hall. It was the same story in Scotland, where the new Protestant Kirk banned them in the 1580s. The custom waned.

Most of us believe that the word "bonfire" simply means a fire of bones. However, historian Ronald Hutton offers three alternative etymological theories. He says it may derive from the word "boon", meaning a mark of neighbourly goodwill. Or that it may come from the Norse word "baun", meaning a beacon, or from the word "bane-fire" as it was the bane of evil things.

The reforming Protestants would have been horrified at the recent beacon parties. The magical properties of the bonfire were in full effect at our local village's recent beacon party for the Jubilee. A committee of us spent months planning a beacon party with the customary contemporary English mix of band, bar, skittles, bouncy castle, maypole dancing and welly-throwing. In the end, 500 people gathered on top of a hill and stood around a giant blaze. While the Republican scoffers, the heirs to the Protestant reformers, may have turned their noses up at such pagan revels, we had a great time. It really is true that a good fire brings people together. The whole of our community showed up and everyone chatted and smiled all evening.

As a tongue-in-cheek bit of token Republicanism, I played "Anarchy in the UK" on my ukulele before the band started. I suppose a part of me is in sympathy with the sentiment expressed by William Morris in the Jubilee year of 1877: "Hideous, vulgar and revolting tomfoolery. One's indignation swells pretty much to the bursting point."

But behind such comments can be seen the Puritan's hostility to popular merry-making. And the people continue to love the monarchy, despite the best efforts of middle-class Republicans to discredit the whole show. In fact, people feel closer to the monarchy than to the state. Round here, everyone will complain bitterly about Parliament, while there seems no hostility to the Royal Family. We have an instinctive love for a king or queen.

Of course, the Republicans did briefly triumph under Cromwell. But we all know that those 15 years were a fun-free disaster. We all cheered when Charles II came back to the throne, because he reopened the theatres and lifted the ban on maypoles and Christmas.

Now, our beacon party to me was, in fact, anarchy in action. The events were organised completely by volunteers and we did them for their own sake. There was no involvement from either state or big business. The shindigs were not motivated by profit or self-advancement. Anarchism is not a pseudonym for chaos and disorder but rather describes a principle whereby people get on with organising things for themselves.

It is paradoxical that an outbreak of monarchism, the principle of one ruler, should have led to an outbreak of anarchism, the principle of no ruler, but there we have it. Perhaps the two are more closely related than we might think.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

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