Thursday, November 5, 2015

Guy Fawkes Day

Today is Guy Fawkes Day in New Zealand, a holiday unrecognised in America, where I'm from. (But many of my countrymen saw V FOR VENDETTA, and "Remember, remember, the Fifth of November" may well ring a bell.) There, fireworks are generally reserved for the Fourth of July, with local state laws determining whether you were likely to celebrate by viewing a celebration in a central location, legally acquiring fireworks and detonating them at home, illegally obtaining fireworks in a different state and detonating them at home and hoping you didn't get a ticket, or some combination of the three.

(Different fireworks were legal in different states, so it is actually possible to do all three. In Michigan, we could buy sparklers, but aerial works had to be imported - from Indiana, IIRC. I think we only got ticketed once. Surprising, really, given that a fire station was less than a half-mile away.)

America's Fourth of July - a day of white men signing a document declaring revolution, or so we were taught, though this appears to be a total lie - led to a successful revolution, whereas Guy Fawkes represents a complete failure when it comes to implementing social change. (Short version: he was caught guarding a stockpile of gunpowder in Westminster Palace, intended to blow up the House of Lords.) But Guy Fawkes also represents anarchism - even though his aim was not to eliminate the system of monarchy but to install a Catholic queen instead of a Protestant king - and so maybe that's why there's no centralised fireworks display that I know of tonight. Guy Fawkes Day, as it is called, is exclusively celebrated in the evening, on an ad hoc basis, by anyone who feels like detonating some fireworks. I'm on my couch as I write this, it's 11:15 pm, and affordably small detonations are occuring every few seconds. I can't see most of them, even when I bother to sit up.

On my drive home, an hour ago, a teenager stood at the end of his driveway, alone, hovering near a fountain firework. It maybe came up to his knee. It was bright but everything about it exuded disappointment. (Well, and smoke.) I want to say that there's nothing like fireworks to capture the transience of pleasure and the permanence of disappointment when it comes to converting capital into goods. (Even with food, you can have leftovers.)

But that's not really true. Fireworks are on sale for four days a year in New Zealand - 2 to 5 November. I thought that meant they could only be detonated legally by private citizens during that time, but in fact that's entirely wrong. You can light them off anytime you want. While most rebuff the anti-dogmatic principles of anarchism by hewing to the days around 5 November, some save their fireworks, hiding them away, biding their time. Maybe a birthday, or another holiday. This Sunday - 1 November - the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup at 6-something in the morning. Fireworks ensued, waking me up. Did their owners buy them 364 days ago, on the off chance of this eventuality? Does a certain strain of Kiwi keep a reserve of fireworks, just in case? And what discipline caused them to wait? (Or do some vendors sell their goods off-season? Or jump the gun and open early to sneak in some weekend sales?)

It's anticipation that you're buying when you pay for fireworks, from the necessary distance between purchase and detonation to the length of the fuse once you light it. You're also buying surprise for everyone else, most notably pets who are wildly unequipped to deal with a sudden barrage of explosions once a year. A friend is apparently appeasing his dog at the moment by closing the windows and blasting a White Zombie DVD. (I double-checked; it's a cat, and now he's playing Metallica.) Most nights, I would be asleep by now. I don't know when I'll sleep. I'm not good with surprises. Someone in the neighborhood is detonating fireworks that whistle, screech.

Today I discovered the Maori party would like to convert the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day into a holiday commemorating Parihaka, an event that also took place on the 5th of November and of much more significance locally. It sounds like a wonderfully noble idea that will never happen. But perhaps that's cynical, and one night in twenty years, I'll look out at an exploding Auckland skyline, and instead of seeing and hearing a dim echo of a confused recollection of history, or the manifestation of the universal desire to blow things up, I'll see the spirits of Tohu Kakahi and Te Whiti o Rongomai, names I barely know today, but pioneers of passive resistance.

But I suspect that, no matter how laudable of a subject is signified on any given 5 November by incessant fireworks, they will still piss me off when I'm trying to sleep.

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