Occasionally you meet with an opinion on some everyday phenomenon which rocks you back on your heels, not necessarily because it’s controversial but because it’s so totally out there: it’s a thought that would never, in a million years, have occurred to you. The latest example of this meme (if you can call it that, which you can’t) happened the other evening. I was at a meeting in a room with an artwork on the wall, showing Guy Fawkes on a bonfire. It was a 3-D effigy and the flames were very colourful; I smiled at it once or twice, thought how unusual it was to see Guy Fawkes rather than a bonfire plus fireworks and set off on a nostalgic journey to a childhood where groups of kids wandered the streets with a stuffed suit in a wheelbarrow shouting ‘penny for the guy!’ We were never allowed to walk the streets, but we did make a guy every year by stuffing some old clothes of my Dad’s with newspaper. This guy went on the bonfire and was a central part of the festivities, along with hand-held sparklers, wall-mounted Catherine wheels and distant rockets whose failure to explode would be investigated by a torch-wielding parent. I loved Bonfire Night and have regretted that of late it has been superseded by Hallowe’en: it does seem to be making a comeback, though, possibly connected in some vague way to Brexit.
But in all these years it never occurred to me to think of the burning of Guy Fawkes as anti-Catholic. Sure, I knew the story, but as far as I was concerned these religious divisions were buried deep in the past. Bonfire Night was an anti-authoritarian night of fun; nothing more. So I was quite taken aback to hear someone say, after the meeting, that she was shocked by the picture on the wall.
‘Shocked?’ we asked. ‘How so?’
‘It’s so anti-Catholic,’ she affirmed.
I think we were all taken aback by this view of things. Most others took my view of things, that the 5th of November has been so long divorced from those political acts that inspired it, as to have no relevance. If it inspires any feelings nowadays beyond family fun, it is a general antipathy to politicians: I don’t think it would occur to anybody to associate it with anti-Catholicism. After all, nobody thinks about the torture of St Catherine when they look at a Catherine wheel, do they?
Am I wrong? Am I living in an Anglican bubble? Do Catholics still take offence at Bonfire Night?
I think we should be told.