Last Friday, as I simultaneously attempted to terrify my daughter and delight my son through the medium of home fireworks on Bonfire Night, I was deafened by something unexpected. It was the sound of silence from around the neighbourhood. In years gone by, I would expect to hear Friday and Saturday nights around November 5 turned into soundscapes from North Baghdad or West Baltimore, as private parties released coloured ordnance into the night skies. Not this year, as barely a firecracker marked that weekend.
This could, of course, be an effect of the recession or that it was raining heavily, but most journalists prefer to cite the malign influence of Health and Safety, not least because it affords them a soft target. At the risk of wandering into Richard Littlejohn territory, Health and Safety legislation has had an interesting impact upon Bonfire Night in recent years. Nowhere more so than Ilfracombe Rugby Club, where they held a "virtual bonfire night" - a large screen showed footage of a fire burning - rather than go through the rigmarole of getting the necessary permits to stage the real thing (story here). This visual treat is supplemented by a smoke machine and sound effects for added naffness, sorry, realism.
Inevitably this has been picked up by the lazy media as Health And Safety Gone Mad, cruelly denying every Englishman his birthright to maim or incinerate his children. Which it would be, if it weren't for the inconvenience of the facts: the rugby club has done this now for four years and found the originality of the idea pulls in more crowds than a conventional fire. They admit the idea was spawned by an unwillingness to cover the cost of fire marshalls and was inspired by "lager" - which probably gives a clue to the real reason for them not being able to complete the required paperwork.
What it does highlight is one of the hurdles to overcome in order to celebrate bonfire night - the use of fire and gunpowder by those singularly untrained to do so. And this may go a way toward explaining the relative decline of the event in the nation's calendar of celebrations that seems to correlate with a rise in activities centred on Halloween. Anyone who has been anywhere near a supermarket in recent weeks cannot have failed to notice aisles of off-the-shelf costumes, pumpkins, and themed confectionery for sale to commemorate the ghoulish and occult.
It could be a gross simplification to suggest a correlation between any rise and fall in the fortunes of these two occasions, as though it is a zero-sum equation - you either do Halloween or Bonfire Night. But that doesn't stop seasoned commentators from citing it as evidence of that other near-satanic phenomenon beloved of the fourth estate: creeping Americanisation (which is probably as old as America itself). I'd suggest it is, but probably not in the way most people understand it.
For anyone who can remember the bonfire night events of the 1970s and 1980s - the halcyon days fondly remembered by the Littlejohns as uncomplicatedly wholesome - all you needed was a scout troop, a big pile of wood, some petrol and baking potatoes wrapped in foil. Plus a few rockets stuck in empty milk bottles; organising a Guy Fawkes pyre was even easier than carving a pumpkin. I'd suggest the reason such events no longer happen is not because of Health and Safety, but because they were shit.
For a society recently emerged from the Three Day Week, miners' strikes and The Osmonds, the idea of burning a few pallets and sausages in a dark, wet field was probably the acme of entertainment. We no longer consider that worth doing not because of the need to apply for official permits, but because we have the Internet, on-demand television, 24-hour drinking, home-delivered pizza and central heating. American commercial cultural influences may have brought us plastic Scream masks and pumpkins, but they have also taught us to expect more, to demand better customer service, better products, more of what we want and less of what we should be grateful for.
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