Image via WikipediaRemember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot.
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes belonged to a group of provincial English Catholics who planned the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Born and educated in the city of York, Fawkes converted to Catholicism and sought support for a rebellion against the Protestant King James. He and fellow plotters rented a small room under the House of Lords, with Fawkes in charge of the gunpowder. But, prompted by an anonymous letter, the authorities searched Westminster Palace during the early hours of 5 November, and found Fawkes guarding the explosives. Tortured in the Tower of London, he admitted to the plot and his co-conspirators. Prior to his execution he jumped from the scaffold and fell to his death, thus avoiding the traditional punishment of being hung, drawn and quartered. Brits like to comment that Fawkes was the only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions.
Although there were twelve other disciples, Fawkes became synonymous with the Gunpowder Plot which has been commemorated in England since 5 November 1605. On this date Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King's escape from assassination by lighting bonfires, "always provided that 'this testemonye of joy be careful done without any danger or disorder". How quaint. An Act of Parliament even designated November 5th as an annual day of thanksgiving for "the joyful day of deliverance", and remained in force until 1859. Who knew?
The 5th of November is variously called Guy Fawkes Night, Guy Fawkes Day and Bonfire Night. Bonfires were accompanied by fireworks from the 1650s onwards, and it became the custom to burn an effigy (usually the Pope) after 1673. Celebrations take place in towns and villages across the country in the form of both private and civic events. The festivities involve fireworks displays and the building of bonfires on which “guys” (the Guy in Guy Fawkes) are traditionally burnt. Other effigies have been used, such as local or national hate figures. Even Margaret Thatcher was popular at one time. In the weeks before bonfire night, children traditionally displayed the "guy" and requested a "penny for the guy" in order to raise funds with which to buy fireworks. This practice is seen less seen now as it smacks of begging, and also children are no longer allowed to buy fireworks. In addition there are concerns that children might misuse the money. Cries of surely not.
When starting autumn term at school, the only thing to look forward to in the run up to Christmas was half-term hols and Bonfire Night. There was also something called Mischief Night on November 4th, when young kids and or miscreants would go out in the streets setting off “bangers” (jumping jacks), tipping over garbage bins, knocking on folks’s doors and running off, and other such jolly japes. Unfortunately, as usually happens when gangs get together, dares became increasingly riskier, and potentially dangerous such as dropping burning fireworks into people’s front door letter-boxes.
Bonfire Night was a highly anticipated event, not least because my grandfather owned a firework factory. Talk about lucky! So our big treat was to go up to the factory warehouse, and stuff the biggest box we could find with our firework favorites; rockets, roman candles, snow blizzards, volcanoes, catherine wheels and traffic lights. Unfortunately our standing in the nabe wasn’t quite as heightened as it might otherwise be since further along the block, and literally yards from the Bonfire, lived the managing director of our home-town’s other fireworks manufacturer. Talk about bad luck! Still, our grandfather drove a Jaguar and he didn’t, so there!
Chumping, a hometown phrase, took place in the week before November 5th as we trawled through the local woods for bonfire fuel. There was probably some wood that was not quite so dead, but hey it was a good cause. On the night itself, at the bottom of the garden (yard) Dad would light the blue touch papers, bucket of water to hand in case of accidents and after setting off all the fireworks, lighting and waving our sparklers we’d head out to our local bonfire. But first, a couple of treats were in store. Bonfire Night was the only time we would have these; “jacket potatoes”, which were potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil and baked in the oven and, perhaps a slice of the wonderfully dense, sticky, gingery cake called Parkin. This is very much a local product, particularly around West Yorkshire my county of origin.
Around the bonfire, today we’d say that a nice community spirit existed. Everyone knew each other, the warmth of the fire burning our cheeks, the crackling of the burning wood, embers rising into the sky. Nothing to do with community spirit, this was just being nice and neighborly. Overnight it typically rained so the smell of gunpowder hung in the air the following morning.
Sadly those days are long gone. Modern Health and Safety rules, a triumph of state nannyism over common sense, effectively restrict such events unless properly supervised blah blah blah. But we were happy then, with life’s simple pleasures, in a way that today cannot compare. Oh dear, pass my pipe and slippers.
Enjoy the 5th of November!