There’s a picture that quite a lot of British schoolchildren still get shown in our history lessons. It shows two signatures of Guy Fawkes, one of the Catholic conspirators who in 1605 plotted to blow up parliament, before and after he was tortured into a confession.
Fawkes’ script is looping, cursive, neat. The letters are still sharp after hundreds of years: a name that had not yet become infamous. The second signature, if it can be called that, is different. It was scrawled in a shaking hand by someone who could no longer write his own name, either because he had gone past the point of pain where such things matter, or because he could no longer hold a pen, or both.
When I first saw this in primary school, it was presented without moral judgement. Torture is obviously bad, but it was all a very long time ago, and besides, he tried to blow up the king. Let’s make a dead man out of paper and burn him in his clothes for the kids to watch. Let’s all sing the nursery rhyme about what happens when you plot against power. It’s traditional.
Britain has a lot of history, and the bits we choose to remember, remember, and the bits we choose to forget, forget, and the bits we choose to dress up in pretty lights and march through the town, say a lot about who we are after so many hundreds of years.
We have a lot of history to choose from. It’s no accident that the current Conservative government, alongside decimating the welfare state, cracking down on dissent and instituting reforms which have plunged millions into poverty, is pushing a new History syllabus that will teach British children about the importance of Empire and the glory of war. Michael Gove loves Niall Ferguson and hates Blackadder.
Like most little girls, what I really loved when I was six or seven was watching things burn. Lucky for me, I spent part of my childhood in Lewes, a small, genteel Sussex town which happens to host Europe’s most enormous bonfire celebrations. November the 5th is like Christmas in Lewes, except with more arson, sectarianism and explosions. Tens of thousands of people descend on the town, and the crush is so huge and dangerous that that the council has had to ask non-locals not to attend. There are six competing bonfire societies, each with their own giant, dangerous fire parade, their own costumes, and their own songs, and there are so many fireworks and bangers and rolling tar barrels that your ears ring for days and the night sky glows sodium orange.
Oh, and we burn an effigy of the pope, because it’s traditional. And march through the town with massive flaming crosses, because it’s traditional. And there are a lot of people in blackface, because it’s traditional. And often we burn political leaders, because that’s traditional too. Especially leaders we don’t like. A few years ago, Lewes burned an effigy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel making a Nazi salute. The town has also burned Blair, Brown, Cameron and Thatcher, with various degrees of outcry.
Today, people in Scotland are upset because the town of Lewes is burning Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader who was the face of the most recent, narrowly defeated Scottish Independence. People are really angry about this today. It’s trending on Twitter. This makes me weirdly homesick for the parochial racist revisionist history of my own country, as opposed to the parochial racist revisionist history of the United States, which is similar, with more pumpkin pie.
I grew up in Lewes. I know this town. The Bonfire Parade has always been exactly this problematic. The surprising thing is that people are only just noticing.
To be clear, I bloody love Bonfire Night. Always did. Always will. I love bonfires so huge and hot and primeval they make the skin on face go tight when you get too close. I love mulled wine and apple-bobbing and the sharp thrill of being half- drunk and cosy in the cold with your friends. I love watching a town full of well-behaved, latte-drinking Liberal Democrat voters get blasted and howl like pagans at the sky. I love the crick in my neck and the dots on my vision from too long watching fireworks. I love the tiny scar on my shin from when a bit of a french firecracker got up my trouser leg ten years ago when I stood too close to the burning barrels. I love the smell of phosphorus and flaming tar.
I love it so much that it took me years to notice and admit to myself how fucked up it was that Lewes Bonfire Night also involves blackface, because it’s traditional, co-ordinated chanting about killing catholics, because it’s traditional, burning crosses, because they’re traditional and, on one occasion, a massive flaming effigy of the first Black president of the United States, because, because….
Just because things are horribly problematic doesn’t mean they’re not fun, or meaningful, or loaded with personal significance unrelated to all the awful stuff*. And just because things are fun and meaningful and significant doesn’t mean the awful stuff isn’t there.
Lewes’ most famous son was the radical writer Thomas Paine, who wrote that “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” You’ve got to wonder whether Tom Paine would have approved of that of Alex Salmond. I hear he was quite a fan of tolerance and independence.**
Winter festivals are older than the stories that accrete around them like unwanted gifts from embarrassing relatives. You get together, you greet old friends, you celebrate surviving another year, you remember the people you’re missing, you stuff yourself with delicious food and set things on fire. The stories change, in time. Old, violent stories are replaced by new ones which are still, at root, about power. We can remember, or we can forget, or we can half-remember, and dress our children up like pilgrims and zulus, and redraw history in simple shapes that can’t describe pain and fear and betrayal.
Or we can confront our history like fucking grown-ups. In America, Seattle recently renamed Columbus Day ‘Indigenous People’s Day’. Just because the past is dark and full of terrors that force their fingers into the present doesn’t mean Americans shouldn’t have a day off work. God knows they get few enough of those.
Tradition is a great excuse for a party and a shitty excuse for ritualised racism. Tradition is a great reason to get drunk with your cousins and make bad decisions with roman candles and a shitty reason to defend xenophobic, sectarian, bigoted local customs and update them for the 21st century by reminding kids what still happens when you don’t doff your cap to the monarchy.
And history? History is what we make it.
*For more on this, have a listen to Tim Minchin singing about Christmas. Tissues at the ready. You have been warned.
**I hear he also beat his wife. History is never the simple story you want it to be.