Burning Effigies

Who would you burn as an effigy and why?  The question was posed at a writing workshop I attended the other day and we were supposed to use it as a prompt.  I suppose it was meant in a light-hearted way, after all, that evening was bonfire night.  I told them wouldn’t burn any effigy.  Couldn’t.  Not when you’ve seen what I’ve seen put on bonfires over the years.  And I’m not talking about bonfires of the Guy Fawkes variety – I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those, although I imagine them to be relatively benign.  (On second thoughts: can any fire really be benign when you place an effigy on it?)  I told them about the colossal towering beasts that are built where I come from – in Northern Ireland – and set alight in July or August, depending upon your ‘tradition’.  These towering infernos have become, I believe, some sort of primal scream of despondency and emptiness.  You might say Ireland can trace its bonfire tradition back to pagan times and that there is an ancestral yearning to light them.  If you are willing to give them the benefit of that historical link, then go for it, but my lot would leave the pagans reeling; reeling because they have outdone the pagans in their lack of civilised behaviour as to what they burn.  Where I come from, you see, the effigies are vicious, but, as I said earlier, how can burning an effigy be anything but vicious?  They are shocking, blood-curdling war cries to rally one side or the other towards a spurious cause, while spewing literal and figurative toxicity into the atmosphere.  And yes, there are effigies galore: the Pope (always popular), religious statues, political posters with faces of party leaders and members (all sides).  Then, depending upon your profile over the last year, and which side you have managed to annoy most, the effigy might be someone from civic life, or a community activist, or a clergyman – someone who has threatened the old ways by building bridges, or nailing their colours to the wrong mast.  It’s noxious.

I’d quit with burning altogether, for it seems to have the whole world blazing.  The arctic tundra this summer – alight; the Amazon rainforest – burning; the Australian bush – raging; the Californian chaparral – wild and out of control: taken together, it’s like some apocalyptic metaphor for everyone’s seething rage (or raging stupidity) as we suck the bone marrow out of the world by using up the last of its coal and gas.  Bonfires have had their day.  Burning effigies of sixteenth century historical figures on bonfire night; chucking another spent tyre or worn out mattress onto the bonfires of N. Ireland; putting the torch to modern day effigies of hate figures on whom we blame everything: we’re slow on the uptake, but it’s time to douse them all.

Gosh, that turned into a bit of a Friday morning rant, but I needed it.  Burning effigies – what a lot of old nonsense!

Fire and Ice, by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.


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