Monday 5 November 2012

Remember the Fifth

It’s Bonfire Night!  This is an event celebrated every year in England on 5 November. It’s a night of fires and fireworks, of bangers and bangers! Now, least those who are not English misunderstand me here, a banger is just a type of firework and a banger is a sausage, really quite delicious when cooked over a fire in the open air.

So, yes, November 5 is our firework night, just as July 4 is firework night in the States. But whereas the one celebrates rebellion the other celebrates loyalty, loyalty to the crown. It celebrates the frustration of the most significant terrorist conspiracy in English history, perhaps in the history of any nation - the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

The commemoration now is all great fun, the political connotations having been wiped smooth by the hand of time. Still, it’s important not to lose all sight of the fact that if the Plot had succeeded it would have eclipsed even the historical significance of 9/11.

I feel sure that’s bound to raise a few American eyebrows but just imagine a 9/11 that had, at one stroke, killed the President, the Vice-President, the Secretary of State, every member of the government, every member of any alternative government, and just about every member of the Senate and the House, then you might begin to appreciate the full significance of the Gunpowder Plot.

In 2005 a reconstruction by one of the English television companies, using the same amount of gunpowder planted under a replica of the seventeenth century House of Lords, showed that the ensuing explosion would have left no survivors; that it would have been seen and heard many miles away from London. It’s difficult to imagine the political chaos that would have followed.

The conspirators were headed by one Robin Catesby, though the whole enterprise is now more closely associated with Guy Fawkes, a soldier and explosives expert. You will probably know his face, or a caricature of his face, from the grinningly inane V for Vendetta mask, one of those cultural artefacts that I absolutely loath! Fawkes and all of his co-conspirators were Catholics, frustrated by the failure of the Protestant government of James I to raise some of the more irksome restrictions on their religion.

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! 

It was Parliament itself that originally decided that the Plot should be remembered in an annual act of thanksgiving for the safe delivery of the King.  For years after it was known officially as Gunpowder Treason Day, with strong sectarian and anti-Catholic overtones, clearly captured in the rhyme.  This was hardly fair, given that the conspiracy was roundly condemned by the Vatican and most English Catholics remained loyal to the crown, fully demonstrated in the Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century.

By the following century anti-Catholic sentiment started to die away.  In popular parlance the 5th was no longer referred to as Gunpowder Treason Day but as Guy Fawkes Day.  Latterly it’s more often referred to as Fireworks Night or simply Bonfire Night, after the traditional fires to which an effigy of ‘the Guy’ – any guy really - was consigned. 

In these days of ‘elf n safety’ there has been an increasingly nannyish approach to the whole spectacle by public authorities, anxious to corral the masses into sanitised official events.  There is also a tut tutting disapproval of residual anti-Catholic overtones, so residual that it they are only brought to mind by politically correct moral arbiters!  As I noted on a previous occasion, the event isn't even celebrated in Northern Ireland, a place where sectarianism has an abiding presence.  

The simple truth is that Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night or whatever you want to call it was transformed from a state-sanctioned holiday into a genuine popular fiesta, the very thing that fills the authorities with fear and trepidation.  If you like it’s anarchy in action, by the people, for the people, of the people.  Long may it remain so; long may the killjoy guys be placed on top of the fires.  

Yes, it’s all about fun, and I had fun, watching the rockets illuminate the night sky, dancing around the fire in the best pagan tradition, seeing the encroaching darkness of winter lift just a little. I will always remember.  In future my children, if I have any, will remember also.  


  1. Any reason for a party. The Irish are sad that the plot failed.

  2. thanks for making the significance of 5th November clear. Unless the new generation is told about this actual significance, it will remain a firecracker festival.
    the sky will be lit with firecrackers in the night, with people rejoicing of what is in their life,what they wont see that it was against everything,everything that revolves around their lives.

  3. The Sussex bonfire societies of Lewes were quite political when I lived there. Worth a train ride from London if you care to go sometime.

  4. The Chinese don't need any excuses to let off a few firecrackers, although they've been illegal in Hong Kong since 1967. The formal fireworks displays are something else: I've missed the last two in Hong Kong, but I hope I'm fit enough to watch the display this coming New Year (11th February if anyone is thinking of coming to Hong Kong around that time).

    1. Dennis, a few years ago I spent Christmas in Buenos Aires. On Christmas Eve we were waiting for a taxi to take us back to our hotel. No sooner did midnight come, announcing the arrival of Christmas Day, than people began to throw fireworks from their homes into the streets. Talk about dangerous! It was as if war had suddenly been declared and the city was under attack.

  5. Even Indians are the same as the Chinese. Cricket match, festival, marriage, Exam results, any reason one common celebration - lit that firecracker (I was about to write firecracker sans the fire but keeping in mind that it is a racist word in your part of the world)

    1. No, Sudarshan, not in England, just in the States!

    2. Cracker is No big deal here, is that the best they could come up with?

    3. I'm never sure of the etiquette here. :-)

    4. In reality it can be meant as a ethnic slur but a very lame one really, considering the ethnic source.

    5. I live in SW GA makes me an expert on Crackers...the word is like "Redneck"; some may use it as an insult, but those whom it is used against usually consider it a compliment! It is not racial or ethnic; it is a chosen way of life, so most rednecks and crackers are not offended by the word.

  6. When Obama won in 2009 I woke all night to watch the results because it was such an important event to watch the first 'black' president of the US elected. Then without having caught up on sleep I went straight to Manchester to celebrate Bonfire Night in Heaton Park with friends (before it was banned)! I recently watched the superb BBC documentary How God Made the English by Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch. One of my many favourite parts of the program is where he visits the small cemetry attached to the chapel at Somerset House built for Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles II so she could practice her Catholic religion freely - I have visited Somerset House but never knew about this.

    Here is a photo I took one evening whilst walking along the Strand, one of my favourite areas of London, so rich with history -

    1. Rehan, that's a super picture.

    2. Thanks, it wasn't meant to come out like that but I like it.

    3. I certainly do. It looks so professional.

    4. That's the first time I've ever been called professional! Actually that's not true, is it? You described the picture as looking so professional but I might as well take the credit for it. It's a bit like Keats's urn saying:

      "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all
      Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

      And Keats taking the dues for all these years!

  7. Very nice, informative post! Keep up the great writing!