Sunday, November 05, 2006

Another world's larger fires.

Every November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, the southwestern English town of Ottery St. Mary holds the strangest of festivals: the running of the tar barrels. In the early evening, adolescents run through the streets of town with flaming barrels behind their necks. After a dinner break, the adults come out to run their full-sized barrels through the city centre. Crowds of people throng around the runners, whose barrels are often nearly as big as themselves. People sometimes surge away from the barrels. But sometimes they surge toward them.

I know these things because I was there one year, with my excellent friend (then my excellent teacher). We arrived early enough in the day to witness the young runners--and to get a false sense of confidence and control over what was to come. Not long after the adult running began, though, my friend panicked and pulled us from the city centre, a process that grew more arduous with each attempt we made to push against a thronging, more or less drunken crowd. Eventually we escaped to the lookout over the enormous bonfire on the edge of town. The whole evening stays in my mind as a moment of high adventure, notwithstanding the fact that the experience helped collapse my excellent friend's lung, notwithstanding the fact that we were pressed, folded, to the fiery savagery of the human heart. You can see it in people's eyes, in some of the pictures at the site where I found these three. We glimmered and glittered and growled like everyone else around those mobile fires, even those of us who then were pulled out and who went uncomplainingly, while a nation burned a man for nearly the four hundredth time, while we cheered and shouted. It is a strange thing to move with a mob; it was a stranger thing, that night, to move against one.


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