Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Guy Fawkes Day

Remember, remember! 
The fifth of November, 
The Gunpowder, treason and plot; 
I know of no reason 
Why Gunpowder treason 
Should ever be forgot!

This famous English children's rhyme can be traced back to the late 1800s, but the actual Gunpowder Plot took place a lot earlier. On November 5th, 1605, our man, Guy Fawkes, was caught guarding barrels of explosive underneath the House of Lords in London. To celebrate that the king, James I, had survived this attempt on his life, the whole of London lit bonfires and made merry. And thus, a tradition was born.

It's a most curious holiday. In "the old days" children used to gather old clothes and make an effigy of poor old Guy, which later they would pop on a bonfire. Families and neighbours would get together to burn wood and rubbish they had collected specifically for the purpose. Nowadays, celebrations are controlled by local councils, and while you might get away with fireworks in the back garden, bonfires usually aren't allowed. 

Bonfire at Midsummer Common, Cambridge UK

In Cambridge, England I'd go every year down to the large park, Midsummer Common. There is usually a small fair, loads of vendors selling all things greasy, and hundreds of people. The night begins with fireworks, which are spectacular of course, often reminding me of the American tradition on July 4th, Independence Day. (Only, on July 4th it is warm and usually dry, unlike most Bonfire nights which are cold, wet, and muddy...) After the fireworks display, the huge bonfire is lit. It is so large that often the crowd has to move back a bit because of the heat. 

Fireworks at the Cambridge Bonfire Night
Another November 5th tradition that I practise each year is watching the film V for Vendetta. It is based on the graphic novel written by Alan Moore. Set in dystopian London, the story centres on V, a sort of vigilante, who wears a Guy Fawkes mask to keep his anonymity and track down his enemies. These enemies are essentially the people now running the government, as they had him imprisoned years earlier during the uprisings. He was nearly killed, and now he is taking on the police state with the help of a shorn Natalie Portman. A surprisingly good film, and one I would highly recommend. (Hugo Weaving is quite dreamy...or at least his voice is, in this film.)

The Guy Fawkes mask is often used by protesters and demonstrators; perhaps most famously in the Occupy movements. Remarkable, isn't it, that after hundreds of years, this tradition of bonfires and "Guys" is still going strong, and has influenced much of modern culture.

This year, I am unfortunately not in England at the moment, so I am missing out on all things bonfire and fireworks. My soggy chips and too strong tea from the vendors at the Common will just have to wait for another year!