Word Games: Bonfire

Here it is - the night of overlarge fires that crisp up your face, wayward fireworks and anxious health and safety representatives trying to persuade neck-craning crowds to stay as far away as possible from anything hot or alight. That's the problem with community events constructed around the element of fire: they're a winning combination of fun and the potentially lethal.

I liked this, from a fire chief in Leigh, setting out the rules: "Bonfires must be built at least 18 metres away from buildings, trees, fences, overhead cables, car parks and roads. Also, fires must never be built more than three metres high. If you think the height of a bus shelter, that's about right. And spectators must be kept at least five metres away, ideally behind a barrier."

So, the first rule of bonfire club: get a long tape measure. The second rule: build your fire in a nuclear wasteland - I don't know where else you would be nowhere near anything at all, not even a tree. The third rule: make sure that no one can move or see (make the whole experience just like a medieval prison, if you can).

This year, to ladle on the woe, there's the strike by London's firefighters. Politicians have been railing against the plan, as 5 November is the busiest night of the year for the fire service, as well as the time when kids like to get creative with bangers. It's Christmas for pyromaniacs.

But ignoring, for a second, the prospect of fatalities from fires licking across the city, is it such a terrible thing for Bonfire Night to come over all political again? Guy Fawkes would surely have been proud: fewer sparklers and less "Ooh-aah, there's another bloody firework"; more life-threatening action to challenge the ruling elite.

Bonfire, as it turns out, is not a French way of saying "good fire!" (as I always thought).

It comes from the Middle English banefire - a fire of bones (originally of animals). When folk realised that fire was pretty effective at dealing with heretics, witches and Joan of Arc, they started burning people, too. Bone-burning! Somehow makes you worry a bit less about the cables and the car parks.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Israel divided