Thursday, 5 November 2009

Gunpowder, treason and plot

Schoolkids throughout England know the old doggerel

Remember, remember the Fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.

Today’s the day we commemorate the moment in 1605 when the Guy Fawkes conspiracy was foiled. He was arrested in the cellars of the Palace of Westminster surrounded by barrels of gunpowder that he was planning to use to blow Parliament up when the King would have been in attendance.

Fawkes was tortured and ultimately he and his fellow conspirators were put to gruesome death by hanging, drawing and quartering (though he cheated his tormentors, throwing himself off the scaffold and breaking his neck before he could be half-hanged and then ‘drawn’, i.e. have his innards cut out of him while he was still alive – governments then were even more charming than they are now).

Clearly this was an early example of religiously-inspired terrorists beaten by the unsleeping vigilance of the authorities, a model for our own times. Of course, there are those who feel he may not have been all wrong – I remember the dying days of another unloved government many years ago, when a poster campaign around the country proclaimed ‘Come back Guy Fawkes, all is forgiven’.

Nevertheless, because protecting the State is a good thing, and torturing and murdering religious minorities a matter to celebrate, we mark the Fifth of November each year with fireworks and bonfires. At the top of the bonfire, we place a ‘guy’, an effigy of a man which kids make in the weeks leading up to Bonfire Night, so that they can take innocent enjoyment from simulating the burning to death of a fellow human being. A good time is had by all.

In recent years, the tradition has begun to fade a bit, mostly under the pressure of US-inspired celebrations of Halloween just a few days earlier. This is presumably on the grounds that it is morally and psychologically much healthier to take delight from the idea that the dead, far from resting in peace, come back in monstrous form to haunt us all – and, what’s more, to extort sweets from us by threats.

There’s nothing uniquely English about celebrating the brutal. After all, the French celebrate Bastille day, commemorating the beginning of probably the bloodiest period in their history, culminating as it did in the Reign of Terror. They do it with a massive military parade, displaying the might of the State in order to commemorate people who rose to overthrow it.

At least they have their fireworks night in July, when it’s usually hot. We have our great outdoor celebration in Novmber. You see, Guy Fawkes failed in his endeavour and we remained a Protestant country, so we like to have a bit of suffering mixed in with our pleasures. So when the fifth of November dawned this morning cold and wet, it seemed completely appropriate. And I smiled to think that Guy Fawkes was getting the last laugh.

No comments: