The End Of A British Tradition?
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?