The End Of A British Tradition?

Great Britain


Guy Fawkes was a member of a group of provincial English Catholics who planned the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a terrorist basically, one of a group of plotters who decided to blow up the government of King James I & VI, not because they were against government oppression; they wanted to be in charge.

So during the state opening of parliament they planned to wipe out the King and his ministers to allow Princess Elizabeth (then 9) to become the puppet queen of a Catholic regime, backed by the Spanish Empire. Fawkes wasn’t the plot’s leader: that was Robert Catesby. But we remember Fawkes because he was the poor sod who was left guarding the gunpowder barrels.

Four centuries later he gets burned in effigy (along with the other Catholics) in Lewes, Sussex and with several other figures of ridicule, which this year included Jeremy Clarkson and David Cameron and his pig.

I’ve attended a few times and it’s a wild, unforgettable experience – but tricky to attend as you have to buy bonfire society memberships in the town. Even that doesn’t keep its numbers down; last night 30,000 people attended in what is effectively a very small town.

Meanwhile, in London last night I saw and heard not one firework anywhere. The tradition of ‘guying’, with which I grew up (making a Guy Fawkes from old pyjamas stuffed with newspapers and standing on a street corner collecting money for fireworks) has vanished and councils, now cash-strapped, have cancelled most municipal displays.

Against this has come the unstoppable rise of Hallowe’en, a commercialised bit of nonsense revived by supermarkets, which has arrived from America shorn of its trick or treat trimmings and has been adapted with a meaner streak with the subtitle ‘Mischief Night’. Plus, it’s right next to Diwali, which also involves fireworks and as London has a fair-sized Indian population there’s usually a good turn-out for celebrations.

So, while it may continue in the shires, Guy Fawkes is heading for the scrap-heap in cities (although he turned up on an early version of the cover of the US edition of ‘The Burning Man’). This is probably as it should be – it’s a pretty archaic practice anyway, but Hallowe’en is simply commercial and Diwali is not really an indigenous tradition, which doesn’t leave us with a lot. August Bank Holiday party, anyone?

Illustration created by Sarah J Coleman for Inkymole Illustration Limited. Copyright in this image is reserved and protected in perpetuity by English law and the Bern Convention.

Illustration created by Sarah J Coleman for Inkymole Illustration Limited.

11 comments on “The End Of A British Tradition?”

  1. Jo W says:

    There were certainly fireworks round here last night Chris,but the biggest and noisiest were at Crystal Palace Park. More tonight,of course and on Saturday they seem to be everywhere. Like Hancock in Sunday Afternoon,I think I’ll take one of me pills and wake up on Monday morning! 😉

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    Would love to know the date that ‘Guys’ stopped appearing in the streets – one of those things that disappears and you never quite notice. I remember in the 70’s seeing 3 kids outside a local pub with a guy; punter gives them a couple of bob and says ‘What’s your dad wearing tonight then’?

    As a young ‘un gangs used to gather wood for their own fires, then the week leading up to ‘Bonty Night’ was fraught with clandestine raids on other stacks – often with rival’s best stuff nicked then set on fire before the big day. Don’t think I ever saw an ‘official’ bonfire in the 60’s – they were all on wasteland and involved the usual bunch of casualties (missing fingers, burnt off hair, major skin grafts, the odd missing eye) read out by the Headmaster the following morning assembly as a warning. Of course, it was 12 months to the next one so nobody remembered a thing.

    I live about half a mile from a Council estate called The Meadowell (so called because it was once a meadow with a well). They were certainly celebrating with gusto last evening; 3 fire engines and 4 police cars, although I suspect the police were going for fish & chips. No doubt more tonight and tomorrow.

  3. C Falconer says:

    there were certainly lots of ‘garden’ fireworks around me (just below Archway) last night

  4. Vivienne says:

    Went to fireworks on the 4th, fireworks yesterday – really excellent, synchronised with music – and will be fireworksing again on Saturday (H&Fulham) also usually good with music. Lots of private stuff going on last night too, but West London is a bit well off. Hordes of children were shepherded around on Hallowe’en robed in bought costumes. Too well behaved to have tricks: I asked some how scary they could be, but they just looked blank. So they get lots of chocolate, which must worry the parents, rather than pennies for the Guy which would go straight to the shop for a penny banger. No chance of that now.

    Has anyone ever thought that it was James on the bonfire, and everyone secretly wished Guy had had his evil way and blown up all the rulers?

  5. admin says:

    Actually I’m hearing explosions now, but then King’s Cross isn’t a typical neighbourhood. They’re probably just guns.

  6. snowy says:

    Just returned from firing another display, [it’s all pressing buttons these days, to hit music cues, not very exciting.] Only a small show, only about £3 per second.

    Almost nobody has a bonfire these days, thought too dangerous apparently. Those that do have them usualy request an ‘instant light’, which is a little trick involving 4 gallons of accelerant. 😉

    But I did pick up enough odds and ends to make some rip-raps.

  7. admin says:

    Rip-raps? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?

  8. Russ Varley says:

    Up here in Yorkshire I was seeing kids doing penny for the guy up tp the mid 1990s but not seen any since 2000. Another tradition that is still clinging on here is 4 November being mischief night but it seems to be dying in the tide of orange and black Hallowe’en tat.

  9. snowy says:

    Just for educational purposes, mind you. Don’t try this at home.

    [Esp. the bit about hammering friction sensitive compounds! Eeek!]

  10. Wayne Mook says:

    The Guy up in Manchester made to the new century but not seen one for a decade. The local waste land is just being built on so there will be no bonfire, can’t think where the next bit of waste land will be.

    Plenty of fireworks, an air bomb almost made me have an accident as I trudged back from work. I do like to sit on my balcony and watch the fireworks going out towards Stretford and Sale.

    In January there tend to be plenty of fireworks for Chinese New Year as there is a big Chinese community in Manchester. Increasingly fireworks are also used for European New Year and plenty of the floating paper lanterns at New Year last time. seems to e a new tradition that’s been growing over several years.

    in Manchester we also ways went trick or treating, but in the last decade there have been fewer and fewer kids doing trick or treats.

    Rise of the car is blocking streets and making it impossible to cross many roads from about 5 to 7pm the traditional times for doing this and Guying on bonfire night.

    Rip raps, here were called Riff Raffs, a tube like the old Catherine wheel but folded back on it’s self, the shape looked like one of the old school radiators, you then lit and dropped it and it would jump and bounce all over the place. Dangerous to say the least.


  11. John DLC says:

    Actually saw a ‘Penny for the Guy’ this year. It was the Woodcraft folk of Crouch End!

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