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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

18 November 2022

As darkness descends, there is joy to be found in dancing, Malcolm Guite finds

I AM not usually surprised by bonfire night. As a little boy, I loved it — not only for the firework display when it came, but even more because I loved the sparklers that we were allowed to light ourselves, passing the bright shower of sparks from one sparkler to the next in our circle of friends, and then running crazily round the garden making magical fiery shapes with our blazing wands. All year, we were told not to play with fire, and then, suddenly, on this one special night, we could do it to our heart’s content.

But I was surprised by it this year, because, on the night itself, I walked out into the darkness of my new hometown of North Walsham, and there was nothing: no distant bangs, no families streaming excitedly towards the park, not even a whiff of gunpowder in the air. “Perhaps it’s just not happening,” I thought. “Perhaps this dreadful cost-of-living crisis has bitten so deeply that no one can afford it, not even the town council.” We went to bed early, a little disappointed.

It was quite out of my mind, the next evening, the Sunday, when I went for a walk in the early dark, just for the exercise. But this time, there were parents and children out everywhere, all streaming towards the Memorial Park, with a sense of anticipation in the air. And, when I followed them to the park, everything was just as it should be: the gathering crowd, the children excited be out in the dark, a fringe of stalls round the field selling hot dogs and toffee apples, and, for the mums and dads, an old double-decker bus converted into a mobile bar dispensing real ales and steaming glasses of mulled wine.

In addition, there was something that never featured in my young days: a stage set up with a band. They were very good, playing mainly dance hits from the ’80s. The parents kept their distance, but, on the muddy grass in front of the stage, a gaggle of excited children were leaping, cavorting, and dancing, while the sprightly lead singer urged them on.

They weren’t waving the dangerous sparklers that I remembered from my childhood, but instead an assortment of glowing wands and swords filled with flashing LEDs constantly changing colour. It was wonderful. And then, appropriately enough, the band launched into a vigorous high-speed cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.”

He wrote that song, which became his biggest hit single, out of sheer frustration at being asked by his producer to write a radio-friendly pop single, something that he thought he couldn’t do. He felt that he didn’t have that kind of spark, and, in any case, being asked to do so reduced him from being an artist to being merely a hired gun — hence the chorus:

You can’t start a fire

You can’t start a fire without a spark
This gun’s for hire
Even if we’re just dancin’ in the dark

But, even as he lamented its absence, he found his spark, and the rest, as they say, is history.

When we got home, there was an item on the news about how people in Kyiv were coping with the long power cuts inflicted on them by the Russians. It featured a wonderful account of a salsa class determined to keep going, dancing in the dark to the flicker of candles and torches, when the surrounding bangs and thuds were not friendly fireworks but deadly bombardment. It was all there: courage and joy firing up defiance.

It’s going to be a dark and difficult winter for everyone; but thank God for the spark he kindles within us, that can keep us all dancing in the dark.

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