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’.Russell Brand on Anonymous march in London



11 comments on “How Guy Fawkes Night Was Reborn”

  1. Paco says:

    I used to make a small fortune outside the pubs of Kilburn shouting, ‘Penny for the Guy’. The vague excuse or justification being that we were collecting money for fireworks(it was illegal to sell them to under 18’s – we were under 10)!

  2. Rachel Green says:

    I used to do ‘penny for the guy’ too. Happy memories.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    I’m beginning to think that we have our own native version of Guy Fawkes here in the States. You get yourself a set of black clothing and don’t forget the matching shoes, an armored vest, a black duffle bag, some armament and plenty ammo, and head for your nearest mall, theater or school after posting a rambling note on Facebook.
    It’s getting so popular the news media hardly have space and time to cover an incident involving less than two hurt or killed. If they report an incident like that, they say it’s a routine murder or someone acting out.
    Just saying. 🙂

  4. BangBang!! says:

    Halloween has, of course, a far more ancient history than Guy Fawkes Night and was celebrated for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before. When I was growing up in N. Ireland it was always Halloween that was celebrated with bonfires. No fireworks though as we weren’t allowed any due to The Troubles. We stuck a guy on the top as well!

  5. Vivienne says:

    Does anybody else think that burning Guy on the bonfire was really burning King James and Parliament : Guy didn’t manage it but this is what it would have been like – what fun!

  6. Ken Murray says:

    Like BangBang!!, for me Halloween was always the bigger deal growing up. We had all the dress-ups but also the parlour games like champers (hunting for coins hidden in mashed potato) and ducking for apples. Probably beacause we were from S.W. Scotland and it is essentially a celtic festival. It grates a bit when all it’s ever described as now, as an American comercial excercise.

  7. Frank says:

    I used to live nearby Lewes whilst doing the Antipodean in the old country thing. Fantastic night. Watched the pope get burned.
    Long live the Lewes bonfire societies.

  8. glasgow1975 says:

    I’m still amazed my dad managed to carve out a ‘Neep’ lantern for me every year, since I can barely chop one up for soup/Burns Night!
    I do agree that Halloween’s easy commercialisation is part of the reason Bonfire Night has played second fiddle in recent times, with fireworks sales becoming increasingly regimented and ‘elf an safety’ encouraging one big display by your local council it doesn’t really leave much room for supermarkets to cash in.

  9. jan says:

    I saw two young kids penny for the guying up in Blackpool last year – it was well early for Bonfire night but i can remember being quite suprised to see kids penny for the guying at all not seen it 4 years. Apparently its a tradition still going in a few Northern towns

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Just finished rereading P.D. James’ “Original Sin” in which an old prayer book (1716)is found containing a “Form of prayer with Thanksgiving to be used yearly upon the Fifth of November, for the happy Deliverance of King James I and Parliament from the most Traitorous and Bloody intended Massacre by Gunpowder”. Think I’ll see if I can find the text – might make interesting reading.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Yep, found it and also a prayer for the 30th of January, the anniversary of the “martyrdom” of K. Charles I. Sounds like they’d have liked to beatify him if they hadn’t decided against that.

Comments are closed.