By Alan Grant
For anyone not living in the UK, this time of year is a little difficult to explain.
Tonight is ‘Guy Fawkes Night’, an objectively rather odd celebration that sees bonfires lit across Britain, topped with effigies of a failed terrorist, set against a vibrant backdrop of fireworks. Culturally, ‘Bonfire Night’ celebrates the disruption of a sectarian terrorist plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament on November 5 1605 in order to kill the newly crowned Protestant King James but has now morphed into a family occasion where kids get wrapped up and spend a chilly evening outside with their families watching a big fire and a fireworks display while stuffing themselves with sugary treats. A perfectly harmless cultural curio and nothing more, surely?
Well, if it were confined to that description – yes, but it’s not.
I can only really speak from my own personal experience, and that of my friends and neighbours in the part of north Edinburgh I live in, but for the past several weeks the quiet autumnal evenings have been shattered by the efforts of aspiring pyromaniacs detonating their own store bought explosives nearby. For them, it seems, Guy Fawkes Night is more like Guy Fawkes Month and there’s no resisting the mesmerising appeal of the bright lights and enticing bangs. To borrow a line from Bertie Wooster, “it’s all becoming a bit thick” really.
This is part of the reason why – unpopular as it may be – I would like to see an end to the commercial sale of fireworks.
There’s something horrifically anti-social about the whole thing. These arrogant individuals who insist on their own private fireworks ‘displays’ conduct their business in such a way as to shove the noise and glare of their quasi-seasonally appropriate hobby into the lives of those who live beside them without much care for their welfare or comfort. They are the adult equivalent of the child in the schoolyard who insists that it is their game that must be played now – no matter how much disruption it causes to the lives of the other kids. It’s simply the height of bad manners and they should know better.
However, it’s not just my small-c conservatism and desire for peace and quiet that leads me to call for fireworks to be removed from public sale – there’s a massive safety concern too. Last year, the number of people who reported fireworks-related injuries in England and Wales had more than doubled from 2009/10 levels, leading to plastic surgeons calling for warning labels depicting injuries caused by these over-the-counter bombs to be placed on the packaging. To me, this does not go far enough and they ought to be simply removed from sale.
Furthermore, these budding pyromaniacs seem to forget the impact that their actions can have on the vulnerable. The elderly, those with learning difficulties or other conditions that make them sensitive to loud and unexpected noises, and most domestic pets have a completely miserable time of it on November 5 and the escalation and deescalation that stretches out before and after the night itself. Whatever temporary utility the consumers of commercial fireworks gain from setting them off surely isn’t worth the extent of the human and animal misery caused when they do? A coherent application of J.S. Mill’s harm principle suggests not.
I’m fully aware that I’m likely (especially as a former libertarian-turned-heretic) to be branded a killjoy or an authoritarian for my position and, truthfully, I don’t particularly care. Generally speaking, we in Britain have agreed that the purchase of weapons and explosives over the counter is not something that we want to go on in our country and for this to be coherently observed – the fireworks really have to go.
However, this does not mean that Guy Fawkes Night celebrations should end. I’m perfectly on board with the celebrations, the bonfires, and the fireworks – provided that they are staged and managed by professionals who know how to do these things safely, with minimal disturbance, and for the enjoyment of those in attendance. In the absence of total power (which I won’t have until The Device in my basement is ready hahahaha!) I would plead with and urge those of you who want to celebrate this quirky British custom to seek out your local public fireworks display and go to it. What you’ll find there is a far more social and entertaining event than anything you could put on in your back garden with a lighter, a pile of sticks, and a packet of rockets from your local supermarket… and you won’t be inconveniencing anyone who’d rather just spend a comfy night at home.
Above all, I’d call on you to, “Remember, remember [on] the fifth of November…” that other people matter too.