The fifth of November. A Friday. Guy Fawkes Night. I’m getting an early bed.
They were papists, you know. Fawkes and his lot. Catholics. This festival used to carry huge anti-catholic sentiment. People would often burn the Pope in effigy. “We see no reason that gunpowder treason should ever be forgot!” “Damn those Catholics.” It’s only a few years later that we were pulling down theatres. It’s hard to imagine such a rift between Catholic and Protestant in modern England. But that conflict shaped a lot of geopolitics.
Guy was arrested underneath parliament, as he guarded barrels of gunpowder set there to blow up the state opening of parliament at the House of Lords and kill the protestant king James the first thus paving the way to a return to Catholic monarchy. They had 36 barrels in there. It would’ve blown the Lords to smithereens and changed the course of history had there not been an anonymous tip off. Busted.
Hundreds of years later Fawkes has become something of a symbol of conscious rebellion now. Originating perhaps with Alan Moore’s dense graphic novel “V for Vendetta,” it’s rare to go to a protest these days without seeing one of those guy masks. His face has become part of the language of postmodern anarchy. Of the plotters, he was lucky in death. He broke his neck immediately in the scaffold and was not drawn by horses and shown his own severed genitals. Perhaps he was as given a quick death as a mercy for dobbing his friends in.
We still burn him in effigy on this night, mostly thoughtlessly – just as an excuse to drink mulled wine and come together in the darkness. It’s the closest we get to those heady days of public executions. A man on a fire. Cheers and warmth and toffee apples.
With the weekend starting tomorrow, the bulk of the official fireworks displays start on the sixth. But this is the day we are exhorted to remember so I’m remembering it.
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot;
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
It’s a good time for fires. We are trying to get used to the dark but we still remember the light. On Sunday there’ll be a fireworks display in Battersea Park and I’ll have a ringside seat in my bedroom. Tonight the blinds are already closed although I can hear the banging of a few fireworks as I write. All the little temporary shops are likely doing a roaring trade in expensive things for people to burn.
Maybe there’s something of a protest in bonfire night now. Growing up I saw my fair share of Thatcher guys. I remember a cheer when her mask melted. I’m sure there’ll be some Boris guys scattered around the country with very flammable hair. At least the bonfire is a way of getting nameless frustrations out. Actual protest is starting to be more firmly legislated against, which is worrying. It’s a response to people pushing the edges, of course. But the edges need to be pushed for society to stay healthy. We aren’t at the stage yet where we can be hanged for burning a Boris. I might try and go to the bonfire in the park on Sunday… Although honestly the view is much better from my room.