Thursday, 5 November 2009

Guy Fawkes Night (or Bonfire Night)

Remember, remember the fifth of November

If you are in Britain during the weeks running up to the 5th November you will notice a lot of loud bangs and flashes going off at night. Don’t worry: they’re only fireworks, bought by teenagers in temporary shops that suddenly spring up all over town. You will also see large bonfires being prepared on open ground such as parks. The bonfires gradually accumulate old furniture and any other combustible material that people want to get rid of. Finally, you may see children outside Tube stations or on street corners with an effigy of a man, usually with a satanic mask and pointed hat (known as a “guy”). You will probably hear them call out “Penny for the guy” and passers-by might feel inclined to give them a few coins.

So, what is this all about?

The 5th of November in Britain, generally known as Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, is an annual celebration marking the failure of a group of Catholic conspirators led by Robert Catesby, a prominent Catholic, to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5th November 1605 using barrels of gunpowder concealed in the cellar of the Palace of Westminster (Parliament) when King James I and all the members of “the House” were present. The Gunpowder Plot, as it is known, was foiled by a tip-off (although in the popular imagination it was the vigilance of the guards at Parliament who discovered Guy Fawkes, one of the plotters, and his gang just as they were about to ignite the explosives). Those involved in the conspiracy were subsequently tried and sentenced to death by being hung, drawn and quartered. Over time, celebrating the failure of the plot became an annual national event.

Photo of fireworks by Semnoz, available under a GNU Free Documentation License

Come Bonfire Night people usually head out of doors and find a public celebration or hold their own private party in their back garden. To celebrate properly you need a bonfire – and some fireworks. Many local councils organise quite elaborate (and expensive) firework displays for the public involving sequences of brightly-coloured flashes set off using sophisticated electronic technology to produce spectacular effects. Domestic 5th November parties are a much more modest affair involving evocatively-named fireworks such as Roman Candles, Catherine Wheels and squibs. People hold sparklers, eat hotdogs and drink steaming mugs of tea. (There are a large number of injuries caused every year from people failing to protect themselves from stray fireworks and animal welfare groups always ask people to take their pets inside as they can be frightened by all the noise.)

For foreign visitors to the UK who may not be familiar with this custom, the strangest – and most macabre – moment of the evening is when the guy (the effigy of the main plotter Guy Fawkes) is tossed onto the bonfire, usually causing a huge plume of sparks and smoke to flare up into the night sky, accompanied by enthusiastic cheering and clapping from the crowd. While Guy Fawkes was a real person – and, indeed, a conspirator involved in what was essentially a Catholic plot to seize control of Protestant Britain – it is unlikely that most people standing in the freezing November night air munching a hot-dog make the connection between the perceived threat of Catholicism in 17th century England and the symbolic burning in effigy of a man who could arguably be called “Britain’s most infamous Catholic”. For the vast majority of people (and especially children) Guy Fawkes is just a bogey man, a generic villain who tried to blow up Parliament (which, incidentally, was a very different collection of buildings from the Victorian Gothic structure that stands on the north bank of the Thames today).

Photo of a bonfire © Gavin Mills (Stock.XCHNG)

T.S. Eliot, the American poet who subsequently settled in Britain, refers to the practice of collecting money for Bonfire Night in an epigraph to his poem “The Hollow Men”: "A penny for the Old Guy". While the practice is still fairly common, many people are reluctant to give children money which they will probably use to buy fireworks (which, legally, can only be sold to adults).

Bonfires are also lit in Northern Ireland on the 12th July (“The Twelfth”) to mark the eve of the Battle of the Boyne, a decisive military conflict that established Protestant supremacy (or, if you prefer, domination) in Ireland. (Interestingly, while the sectarian aspects of this celebration in “the Province” (Northern Ireland) are explicit, on the largely apathetic or agnostic British mainland, the Catholic-Protestant roots of 5th November are largely obscure to most people.)

Guy Fawkes Night is always something of an anti-climax. Having lit the bonfire, burnt the guy and watched the fabulous display of pyrotechnics, there is nothing left to do but go home – or, if you are at home already, to go inside and watch the telly. Since the origins of the event are purely historical, rather than being tied to a holiday, such as Christmas or Easter, there isn’t really much to celebrate, apart from the fact that Parliament wasn’t blown up. No-one feels inclined to organise a real party afterwards (although it might be a good idea to take refuge from the chilly November night in a cosy pub with some friends); there are no family get-togethers or blockbuster films on TV. The people who really enjoy 5th November the most are children: there’s a big fire, an ugly figure in a pointy hat who gets incinerated, hot dogs, sparklers and fireworks (the appeal of which, I personally find, gradually diminishes in proportion with the number of times you have seen them).

When I lived in London I noticed that the random bangs and shrieks of fireworks being let off got progressively earlier – starting around early to mid-September and then continuing throughout November towards December. With celebrations for the Hindu festival of Diwali taking place at this time of year combined with the fairly recent trend to have huge firework displays on New Year’s Eve, it now seems that the whole of autumn and most of winter is a general “firework season”. It’s also noticeable that the impromptu firework shops – which are generally just empty stores sporting a canvas banner, mobile shop-fittings and a cash register – seem to follow (or lead) this trend. However, this may just be part of a wider tendency to cash in on seasonal events, a phenomenon which results in Christmas puddings being sold in supermarkets in August and Easter eggs appearing on shelves from 2nd January. (For those who assume this must be due to aggressive (and godless) Anglo-Saxon marketing, I have to report that the Christmas Village shop on Milan’s Naviglio Grande (a canal) was decked out with fairy lights and doing a roaring trade when I passed it in October.)

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