The PM called the burning of an effigy of Grenfell Tower on a bonfire as ‘utterly unacceptable,’ but I have to say, as much as it appals me, it does not surprise me.
Coming from Belfast, I’m a bit of an old hand at bonfires, and their sometimes destructive power. Maybe it’s something about the fire, wild and ravaging in the darkness, the loss of individual identity in the flickering light, tapping into a deeper, more prehistoric animal in us all?
Or maybe, some people just use them as an excuse to drink too much alcohol and behave in a way that, under ordinary circumstances, they probably would not dare to do.
When I was a child, I remember collecting for a bonfire in August. In West Belfast, in those days, it was a tradition to set a bonfire alight to mark the anniversary of internment without trial. This suspension of habeas corpus had been authorised by the Northern Irish Prime Minister on the 9th of August 1971. The plan was to lift suspected Irish Republican activists (which they did) but the police and army also managed to scoop up a number of people with no political links at all (not the plan). The end result was anarchy and long-simmering resentment. Thus, I found myself scavenging wood all summer long aged about eight years old, but with no idea why I was doing it. After it was done, the waste ground was still waste ground, and the place smelled of charred wood for ages. But that empty feeling I remember having as I watched our efforts burn was not just disappointment that it was all over. It was because burning pyres as a collective act of political expression really achieved nothing of value but the destruction at its heart.
With the bonfire came the obligatory riots, in the main, damaging the areas inhabited by those doing the protesting. Finally, in the late 1980s, this collective insanity was ended by the communities involved and those who took responsibility for leading the way to a different approach to understanding and commemorating history, grievances and ideas. The West Belfast Festival (Féile an Phobail) was born and is now an internationally attended and much-lauded entertainment event. It brings in big names and lots of needed money. My parents still have a few sleepless nights, but now its because Ollie Murs is singing away in the Falls Park, not because the road is burning and the plastic bullets are firing.
Catholic areas of Northern Ireland have mostly turned away from the bonfire, but, to borrow a phrase, they haven’t gone away, you know? The 12th of July, our much better known Protestant sister, still revolves around the burning of massive bonfires on the 11th night of July, again ostensibly, to commemorate collective historical moments, these from many hundreds of years ago. But, guess what? Year in and year out there is controversy, with effigies of the Virgin Mary, Irish flags and photographs of perceived political enemies set to flame. With the rise in social media and streaming videos, we have also seen instances of hate speech chanted around the fires, and damage and destruction from poorly constructed, often massive, bonfires.
So, no, the disgusting actions of those who burnt Grenfell Tower in effigy did not really surprise me at all.
Stanley Milgram, the social psychologist, suggested in his famous obedience experiments that it’s not just the deranged and deficient who are capable of terrible atrocities and inhumanities.
Given the right social context, with and the incendiary formula of diffusion of responsibility and the melting of norms and values once shared and taken for granted, it’s you, and it’s me.
I watched middle-class men and women glibly hoist an effigy of Guy Fawkes to the top of a dry bonfire at the edge of the cricket club close to my London home on Saturday morning. I don’t know everything about the Gunpowder Plot, but I know that the real Guy Fawkes was tortured horrifically before he was put to death brutally. It gave me a chill. And it made me think, even before the news of the Grenfell Tower effigy, that there’s a better way to celebrate our liberty, our historic liberalism, our victories and our indignations than burning bonfires. My nine-year son asked me what was going on and I gave him a sanitised, and potted summary of the history of the country of his birth. My little Englishman held my hand, and I didn’t let him go.
History is best understood, not repeated in my experience.