Bonfire Night in London is an extravagant affair. Upwards of twenty different fireworks displays are put on over the course of the weekend, many of them accompanied by fairs and music. Others skip the fireworks in favor of flares, donning Guy Fawkes masks and joining the annual Million Mask March against capitalism and corporate greed. News and social media streams end up with a disorienting mix of images: cheery, colorful fireworks alongside eerie shots of masked protesters silhouetted against smoky lights.
Thanks to “V for Vendetta” if nothing else, most people are aware of the history behind this commemorative day: on November 5, 1605, a plot to blow up the House of Lords was foiled in the nick of time. Conspirator Guy Fawkes was captured and, later, executed. And every year after that, people have celebrated the plot’s failure with bonfires and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes. The fireworks are more of a modern-day addition and, let’s be honest, the best one.
It’s fascinating to me how an event that originally celebrated the failure of an anti-government plot has turned into an iconic day of protest. I can’t deny that the mask makes for a compelling symbol.
Now, as much as the idea of protest calls to my university-student brain, I’m team fireworks all the way.
I attended a display at Wanstead Flats in Newham, and it was more extravagant than just about any fireworks show I’ve had the chance to see in the past. It took place in a huge, open field absolutely packed with people. The show was set to popular film soundtracks, which was honestly fantastic. It turns out the only way to improve fireworks is to time them to the beat of Ghostbusters, Star Wars & War of the Worlds music.
There was one moment where a particular burst went off right over the gathered audience’s heads, dispersing over us like shooting stars. I tried to capture the effect in the image at the top of this post, but it doesn’t quite communicate the feeling of watching what might as well be streams of stars floating in the night sky above you.
I was so cold I could barely feel my fingers and toes. Still, I’m glad I went out and experienced this event, which seems so essential to British culture and history. Plus, I didn’t do anything on the 4th of July, so I was overdue for a quality fireworks show.
Along with the fireworks, I’d definitely recommend reading up on the history of Guy Fawkes Night, and looking at some of the news articles covering the protests. It’s one of the more intriguing episodes in Britain’s history. As for actually participating in the protests? I’ll leave that decision up to you.