How Guy Fawkes Night Was Reborn
When I was a little boy, my brother and I would spend about a week building our Guy. He was made of old clothes cadged from parents and neighbours, stuffed with old newspaper and a hat, and the standard mask, made of pressed grey cardboard and sold everywhere. We would then trundle him down to the street corner and collect ‘A Penny For The Guy’. Yes, it does sound utterly Victorian and vaguely like begging, but it was fun.
There’s a long history of children doing such things; On the 25th of July, St. James’ Day, London children used to build little grottoes for the saint and take money from passers-by. The ‘Penny For The Guy’ tradition is anti-Catholic in origin (a 1677 celebration is said to have burned an effigy of the pope with live cats inside “who squalled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire”). But Roman Catholic opposition to the event has never been vocal, and ‘Guying’ continued until the 1980s. Then, almost overnight, it vanished.
Down in towns like Lewes, Sussex, it still continues, and Catholics are still burned (or certainly singed) in grand incendiary parades. I’ve been going for several years now to that particular lunatic event. So why did ‘Guying’ disappear?
There are many theories. My cabbie told me it was ‘Them Europeans, all Health & Safety and that.’ He added, ‘And the paedophiles.’ By which I assume he meant that the idea of having children greet strangers was somehow turning them into rent-boy jailbait, a logic which surpassed even my notoriously flimsy mind. The truth appears to be somewhat simpler. With the retail ascendency of Hallowe’en, money and energy is entirely expended before Guy Fawkes’ Night five days later. It didn’t help this year that Diwali also fell in the same time period.
But of course the three events are utterly different. Guy Fawkes’ Night is about insurgence and insurrection, religion and politics, while Hallowe’en means dressing as a zombie or a sexy witch.
So, it was on final and irrevocable course to die out, until the anti-capitalist movement began. In the early 1980s Alan Moore created ‘V For Vendetta’, a rambling but darkly powerful graphic novel about a modern-day Guy Fawkes who sets out to destroy parliament. It was turned into an interesting movie version from which Moore (stupidly, I think) removed his name. David Lloyd, the comic’s artist, re-interpreted the traditional Guy Fawkes mask (actually, he hardly changed it at all) and somehow it became the symbol of ‘Anonymous’, the anti-capitalist group who clashed just this week with police outside Buckingham Palace.
So, although the Guy disappeared, his face re-emerged as the spirit of insurrection, and has now spread across the globe. And he’s once more associated with the fire of revolution (or, if you’ve a mind to it, a studenty excuse for a street party). Oh yes, and Russell Brand has now got caught up in a row over it. Let’s see Hallowe’en match that! Russell is here seen misunderstanding the concept of ‘Anonymous’.