Tuesday, 2 November 2010
Bonfire of the absurdities
Every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction, so said Sir Isaac Newton. He forgot to add that this is a general principle, applying to far more than the laws of physics. I mentioned in a recent blog that Dominic Sandbrook was in favour of scrapping Halloween in favour of the more ‘traditional’ English festival of Bonfire Night. Now Frank Skinner, a comedian of sorts (the principle here being that humour and wit have virtually nothing to do with comedy in its modern form), has called for the scrapping of Bonfire Night!
Writing in the Times on Friday (Let’s not remember the Fifth of November), Skinner comes out with the usual po-faced garbage, from concerns over elf ‘n’ safety to how awful it must be for Catholics to witness this appalling outburst of Protestant ‘hysteria.’
Let me just repeat, for those not familiar with the basic facts, that Bonfire Night recalls the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, an act of potential terrorism in English history not paralleled even in the present day, in which a group of Catholic conspirators planned to blow up Parliament during the state-opening, thereby in the process killing the king and most of the governing classes of England. The political chaos that would have resulted is almost unimaginable.
The conspirators were headed by one Robin Catesby though the enterprise has long been associated with Guy Fawkes, a soldier and explosives expert. The discovery of the plot was the cause of an immediate anti-Catholic reaction, recalled in a traditional rhyme;
Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, 'twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow
By God's providence he was catched
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holloa boys, holloa boys
God save the King!
Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray!
A penny loaf to feed ol' Pope
A farthing cheese to choke him
A pint of beer to rinse it down
A faggot of sticks to burn him
Burn him in a tub of tar
Burn him like a blazing star
Burn his body from his head
Then we'll say ol' Pope is dead.
Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray!
Now most people, if they know this rhyme at all, will be unable to proceed beyond the first few lines, almost certainly no further than To blow up the King and the Parliament. The inclusion of the Pope, and by implication all Catholics, is quite unfair, as the pontiff of the day, Paul V, was quick to express his disapproval. Acting on his instructions, the Archpriest George Blackwell issued a statement denouncing the Plot as “intolerable, scandalous and desperate”, going on to say that “private violent attempts could never be justified. Catholics must not support them in any way.”
No matter; Catholics were established in popular imagination as potential traitors, liable to all sorts of nefarious schemes, a suspicion that was to emerge later in the century in the Popish Plot. Even today, in the great bonfire held every year at Lewes in East Sussex, an effigy of Pope Paul is burned alongside that of Guy Fawkes.
Does this matter? No, of course it doesn’t; the Guy is burnt, the Pope is burnt, but so, too, is all residual passion. I have no way of penetrating the consciousness of other people but I think it fairly reasonable to deduce that those who attend the Lewes festival, or any other bonfire celebration across the land, harbour little in the way of anti-Catholic sentiment. I’m sure a great many Catholics also take part because – and this is the point completely missed by Skinner – the whole thing is about fun, not bigotry. In Northern Ireland, where such feelings might still rest, Bonfire Night isn’t even celebrated.
I’m so tired of political correctness, the modern disease, a disease of limited imaginations. Modern, I say, but it’s really another residue of seventeenth century Puritanism, with the ghastly Skinners of this world coming along, fingers wagging, saying thou shall not, because thou may very well upset some geek or other. Sandbrook, as I say, wants to displace Halloween in favour of Bonfire Night. And what about Skinner, what’s his alternative offering? Why, it’s Valentine’s Day;
Maybe we could broaden out Valentine’s Day as a replacement. It might be a nice change to celebrate love – romantic, parental, interfaith –instead of a 400 year old hate.
This, for me, brings on a distinct sick bucket moment. Let’s all be lovey-dovey, drape ourselves in pink and sentiment, reciting machine-written, saccharine verse while tucking in to a tofu casserole; or let’s have danger, excitement and tradition: fires and bangers; bangers and mash. I know which way I go. Even now I’m planning to burn an effigy of Frank Skinner on my bonfire of all the absurdities.