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Updated: November 17, 2012 19:46 IST

Lighting up the sky

Bill Kirkman
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Awash with colour and glitter. Photo: K. Ananthan
The Hindu Awash with colour and glitter. Photo: K. Ananthan

Fireworks are widely used in many countries as a means of celebrating events and places – and the reason is often quite interesting.

During the past week I have spent much time thinking about fireworks. This is not because I am developing incendiary tendencies. It is because at this time of year – and specifically on November 5 – fireworks are an important part of British life. In Cambridge, for example, about 25,000 people gathered at a large central common to watch a firework display.

Fireworks are of course widely used in many countries as a means of celebrating events and places, and particular seasons.

I recall, for example, going to a wonderful firework display in Butchart Gardens, Victoria, British Columbia, some 17 years ago. I still remember it with pleasure: a beautiful setting, and a dramatic firework display.

I also remember, as a child, being taken by my father to firework displays given near our home, beside a river. The display was on one side of the river, the watchers on the other, and the effect of the water greatly enhanced the dramatic nature of the display.

Even more memorable, because of the fact that it was one of the first major national fireworks events after World War II, was a dramatic display which my wife and I watched, outside Buckingham Palace. It was to celebrate the state visit of President de Gaulle of France, in 1961.

Fireworks are used as part of the 4th of July celebrations in the United States, often accompanied by music played in the open air. In Singapore, firework displays take place annually as part of the National Day celebrations, featuring local and foreign teams providing the displays on different nights.

Thousands of miles away, quite close to the Arctic Circle, there are displays in Reykjavik, which are not part of an officially organised event, but are an example of “self help” by residents of the city, who set them off independently but at the same time. The result, apparently, is that at midnight the sky fills with the sight of fireworks.

Traditional celebration

For the French, Bastille Day on July 14 is traditionally a celebration of the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789 – a crucial stage in the French revolution. Celebrations, with fireworks, take place all over France, including a major event in the Champs Elysée at the centre of Paris.

The French Bastille Day tradition is wholly understandable; the Revolution brought about major changes in how the country was governed. But the explanation for the British tradition of fireworks on November 5 is rather less clear cut, though it is very firmly grounded in history. It is a reminder of the failed attempt in 1605 by Guy Fawkes and a small group of fellow Roman Catholics to assassinate the (Protestant) King James. Guy Fawkes was a member of a group who arranged the Gunpowder Plot, He was arrested while guarding explosives that the plotters had placed underneath the House of Lords, after the king had survived the attempt on his life. Some months later the Observance of 5th November Act was introduced, enforcing an annual public day of thanksgiving for the plot’s failure. For many years Gunpowder Treason Day was a significant state commemoration.

So much for history. I do not know for how long the annual Gunpowder Treason Day remained as a truly significant part of the country’s political calendar. Certainly for very many years few, if any, people enjoying the annual 5th November fireworks have been more than vaguely conscious of its historical significance.

People of my generation were familiar with a verse that was part of a nursery rhyme: Remember remember the fifth of November / Gunpowder, treason and plot./ I see no reason why gunpowder, treason / Should ever be forgot...

I imagine the rhyme is still quite well known, but the original intention, of ensuring that the Gunpowder Plot crime would be remembered, has long passed its sell-by date. When people enjoy the annual Fifth of November fireworks they are most unlikely to see it as commemorating a major threat to the state.

Traditionally, on the bonfires that accompany the fireworks, a Guy is burnt. It is meant to be an image of Guy Fawkes, but frequently it is either an anonymous figure or (occasionally) a representation of some current politician).

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK.

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