the fifth of November,
gunpowder, treason and plot!
I see no reason
why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.
Say the two words of the title to anyone from the UK, and chances are that they’ll complete the rhyme almost involuntarily, most likely in a deep, portentous voice. Imagine my surprise, on leaving my country, to find that nobody else really does Guy Fawkes Night.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course. In theory, what we do on November 5th is celebrate Guido “Guy” Fawkes’ failure to blow up the House of Lords in 1605 as part of The Gunpowder Plot, a wider Catholic plot to assassinate King James I for being Protestant and replace him with an honest-to-goodness old-fashioned Catholic king like what we had had back in the good old days. Never mind that the last one couldn’t speak a word of English and was married to a woman who burned 280 people at the stake in 5 years, thus inspiring seventeenth-century mixologists to create top tomato-based cocktail/ hangover cure the Bloody Mary. If this doesn’t mean a whole lot to you, you should probably be thankful that your history is not as silly as ours.
If it seems strange that we celebrate one man’s failure to blow up the English establishment by setting fire to things and then revelling in the ensuing explosions, consider this: until 1859 there was actually a legal compulsion to mark the day, known as the Observance of November 5th Act. The Act condemned the “many malignant and devilish papists, Jesuits, and seminary priests” who had “conspired most horribly”, thus ensuring its popularity among Protestants with fire in their eyes for centuries to come. Truth to tell, though, I’ve long suspected that what we’re really revelling in is the fact that someone tried in the first place – it speaks volumes that in 2007, the public ranked Guy Fawkes 30th on the BBC’s list of the 100 Greatest Britons, just behind David Bowie.
So now that the religious froth and fervour has subsided, what are we left with? Well, naturally we get our mates round, drink beverages and set fire to stuff, that essentially being the great cultural constant of any festival. But there are specifics that must be observed. There must be fireworks, for a start. Tradition dictates that these fireworks should be enjoyed from a safe distance after a designated adult, commonly known as ‘dad’, lights the symbolic blue touch paper and stands well back. It is considered good form to greet the explosion of the firework, however pathetic, with the words “ooh” and “aah”. A fireworks party is often enlivened by the falling over of the official projectile launcher/ milk bottle/ toilet roll, with hilariously life-threatening slapstick consequences.
Not contenting ourselves with small pretty fires safely far away in the sky, it’s also traditional to gather up branches, leaves, medium density fibreboard, disused railway sleepers and hedgehogs, douse them in petrol and light an enormous fire known as a Bonfire. These items are considered more appropriate fuel in these politically correct times than Catholics. This fine tradition also serves the purpose of preventing Guy Fawkers from dying of hypothermia, given that the whole November fifth thing entails waiting until it’s bloody freezing before enjoying any fireworks, where other countries rather sensibly enjoy them in summer.
Besides serving as a huddling point against the cold and pizzle, the fire also provides the heat needed to craft such delicious bonfire night fare as charred hot dogs, cremated beef burgers, and slow roasted potatoes with a distinct hedgehoggy aftertaste. Mulled wine helps considerably in raising participants’ spirits, fortifying their resistance to seasonal cold, and generating the aforementioned life-threatening comedy mishaps that remind us all just how foolhardy Mr Fawkes was to mess around with gunpowder in the first place.
A final Bonfire Night tradition worthy of note is the crafting of a guy, a lumpen man of newspaper and old clothes who is then burned in effigy, thus proving how great and good politicians and the monarchy are, hurrah hurrah. Starting out as a sort of devil/ pope amalgam, this later became an image of Guy Fawkes, mysteriously acquiring a curly wig and power shoulders during the Thatcher era. For some years, it was popular to exhibit the result to indulgent adults in return for a Penny for the Guy (see also Money for Old Rope), which would then go to buy hard drugs, and sometimes fireworks.
As the image will attest, I passed many happy childhood years learning the finer points of the art of Guy crafting. However judging by the poor excuses for guys that have recently been taking to the streets, so decrepit and deformed that they must rely on wheelbarrows and human aid to get around, this is a dying art, probably murdered by the same group of burly lads that come round every Christmas, mumble silentnight ‘olynight in a menacing undertone then demand five quid.
From here on November 5th 2012.