Bonfire Night

It’s that time of the year - when the British celebrate a horrible bit of history (attempted terrorist attack, horrible execution of those involved) by having fun on cold nights setting off fireworks and building bonfires. It is Guy Fawkes night! We have a tradition on the blog of having special posts, and this year the bangs and flashes are going to be used to good effect in a spy thriller…

Funeral in Berlin by Len Deighton

published 1964

Nov 2018 bonfire Funeral in Berlin

Tuesday, November 5th

It was there in the sky: red. Red flickering brown, red flashing pink, but always like some sinister dusk or neolithic dawn. Chimneys were drawn up tightly in soldierly rows across the skyline and as we turned the corner a long low street of artisans’ houses was bright with the firelight, like some Kensington speculator had given them the pink-distemper-and-brass-lion’s-head-knocker treatment. The crash of fireworks went on all the time and the tear-away sound of rockets wooshed and pattered way overhead. The lines of windows were twisting with reflected flame and suddenly the bonfire appeared from round the corner. It was a huge flaming altar of fruit boxes, heaped together and twisted with flames into a fiery cubist nightmare. The apex of the flame was about thirty feet high and from the very tip a whirling vortex of sparks moved violently upwards on currents of heat, and then slid sideways towards the cold ground like a swarm of wounded fireflies.

The bonfire was in the centre of a large open site that had probably been flat since the bomb-damage squads of the war had checked the number of corpses against the list of residents, sprayed the site with chemicals and framed it with the fencing that now was bent and trampled…From the far side of the site there was a sudden patchwork of flame. Tangled skeins of yellow, unravelled spools of green and neat scarlet patches tumbled across the ground like an upset sewing box.

commentary: This is the climax of the unnamed narrator’s adventure – dates are carefully given throughout as he tries to direct an important spy operation between London and Berlin. Now he is in Kensington with the rather dubious Hallam, and things are about to get very exciting. And the Bonfire Night happenings are very nicely described.

There is a very interesting passage in the Wikipedia entry on this book:

The U.K. publication of Funeral in Berlin brought on a lawsuit; at the novel's climax, the protagonist and Hallam meet at a fireworks party where they discuss the hazards of fireworks. U.K. fireworks maker Brock's objected to this text, which mentioned them by name, and were granted an alteration of the novel. The 1972 Penguin edition had some dialogue deleted.

This is how it read initially:

'I personally have always been against it,' said Hallam.

'Alcohol?' I said.

'Fireworks night,' said Hallam. 'Once a year animals are frightened, children are blinded and burnt. There are terrible accidents, hooligans take advantage of the occasion to throw fireworks into letter boxes and put them in milk bottles. There are cases of them tying them to animals. It's quite a disgusting business. The fire service always suffers casualties, the casualty wards in hospitals are overworked. 

Who gains?'

'Brock's Fireworks,' I said.

'Yes,' said Hallam, 'and the shops selling them. There is a lot of money changing hands tonight. A lot of us at the Home Office are very much against it, I can tell you, but the interests we are working against are...' Hallam raised flat palms in a gesture of despair.

'They should pay,' said Hallam. 'They should foot the bill for all the damage and accidents and burnt houses that are caused, and if any money is left over after that, it could be paid to the shareholders.'

'But don't they make signal rockets?' I asked,

'Very few, my boy. I've been into the whole business; it is quite degrading that these people make money out of it. Nasty. If the municipal authorities each organised a firework display, that would be another matter...'

The passage, after being edited, ends after "Fireworks night."

There was another entry on this book last year, revolving around the bizarre cover quote

Next, big soft girls will read Len Deighton aloud in jazz workshops

For previous Guy Fawkes posts, click on the label below, or here.

The top picture is from the Oregon State University collection, and so does not show a British bonfire night at all, and also has been colourized… Great photo though. It dates from around 1920.  

The second picture is my all-time favourite bonfire picture, and I use it as often as I can at this time of the year. It is from 1954, and comes from the National Library of Wales.


  1. You can't go wrong, I think, with Deighton's writing style, Moira. What a great choice for Bonfire Night. And it's interesting how the lobby groups got interested in this one. It shows you that books can have real influence.

    1. There were all kinds of unexpected joys in this book! As you say, Deighton is always a winner.

  2. Fireworks have always been limited in their availability in Canada. We are generally a cautious people. Now the U.S. could not have a July 4th without virtually every citizen with their own fireworks. I was surprised 50 years ago that my South Dakota cousins had a family fireworks show on the 4th. At the time I wondered why all the fireworks stands, filled with all sorts of fireworks, were set up outside towns. On becoming a lawyer it became clear.

    1. Interesting. When I was growing up in the UK, families usually had their own firework parties, but now organized displays are the norm. Where I lived in the US, 'private' sales of fireworks were theoretically banned (it's different from state to state) - but they could be bought in Native American areas, so people flocked to those shops in the weeks running up to July 4th.

  3. I really must read some Deighton next year!

    1. Yes: Tracy and I have been telling you long enough! You have some in the tubs don't you?

  4. When I saw your title, Bonfire Night, I remembered that I had read a book by Deighton that mentioned that. I had forgotten which one. Funeral in Berlin may be my favorite in the "nameless spy" series. Interesting about the changes to the book after it came out.

    1. Yes, it was an interesting experience reading Funeral in Berlin for several reasons. I prefer the Game Set and Match books - but they are not the nameless are they?


Post a Comment