Last night we joined friends in the Suffolk countryside for Bonfire Night. It was the first time this strange English ritual has touched me, and I did not expect this. I must admit to finding most such nights, with their local fireworks and bad burgers on sodden fields, often in a drizzle of rain, uncomfortable and charmless — never mind the malice of burning a Catholic effigy. But this was nothing like.
Our friend Gordon had built a masterly construction of timber culled from trees he had been giving attention to on his two acres: no rubbish or bits of lumber, just branches, mostly deciduous, with one large pine that hadn’t made it through last winter. He had carefully considered where to position the pile, taking into account wind directions and the 100-foot trees marking the border between his meadow and the neighbouring farmer’s pigs and winter wheat. The chickens were moved to safety and the scene was set.
I had lingered in the kitchen well past dark while the fire was being lit, so when I walked through the long wet grass to join the company, flames were already in a full roar with a spectacular show of sparks whorling against the dark, like an enormous swarm of fireflies, or frenetic fairies. It was arrestingly beautiful, and I did stop, caught in wonder beneath a storm of sparks that seemed to land in the trees like magic lanterns before safely melting.
We were all speechless for some time, mesmerised by this primal sight. All was quiet save for the crackling as fire consumed the smallest branches and broke off to fly, transformed into those phoenix butterflies; quiet save for the low rumble that roared when the wind gave a gust; quiet save for an occasional squeal from the sows in the pens across the road. There were no other lights around, save for the distant house — nothing to signal the year or the century. Just a band of beings joined in the darkness around the dance of flames.
When Julie emerged from the darkness a little later carrying sausages made from Jeremy’s pigs, we felt another pull on our primal brains. Food cooked on fire can taste like salvation. With potatoes cooked in the embers it was a feast to be remembered all my days, a contentment that went deep. Fire in the dark, food cooked on the fire, and companionship. That was once all we needed.
All these signals seemed to bring back memories for the adults present, and some spoke with surprising tenderness of Bonfire Nights as children. I realised for the first time why this ritual, with its anachronistic Guy, persists.
For me, the connection was to something profound I experienced in Sardinia two winters ago, at Su Nuraxi in Barumini, an hour into the remote hill country north of Cagliari. There, in the company of one gentle Sardinian man with little English and ancient features, we visited the most spectacular of the mysterious Nuragi that dot the landscape. Built by Bronze Age people, this fortress was sited around a well, with small circular dwellings arranged closely together around the main beehive-like tower. These little pods were where people over 3,000 years ago would cluster for warmth and food around their own fires, safe in the dark with each other and all they needed. Our guide had showed us earlier the well at the centre of the site, from which everything else revolved. “Water is life”, he said. “They found water first and built here”.
We have come so far from then, yet so far is so little, when judged on another scale. I feel the connection with those ancient Sardinians, and with my fellows in Suffolk last night, because I felt it in my body and in my nerves — the fire that warmed and enchanted me, the food that put right my restless hunger, the clan close by, a presence in the dark — those elemental needs that we all, everywhere, share.
I understand now what may lie under the riotous fun of fireworks and effigy burning, and don’t think I’ll ever look on Bonfire Night in the same way. I’m glad I have felt something of why this night means so much to others. It was a cultural difference that made me immune, and a universal human response that made me connect. Perhaps that is true for other differences that keep us from appreciating what is important to other people — and killing them, hating them, dismissing them.
A step back in evolutionary time can be good for us. When I am able to touch this feeling, I sense time coming towards me, not running out. Infinity lies ahead, for every lifetime defined by looking back.
Light in the darkness.