Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Remember, remember...

King James VI and I
Today is the 5th November, the day loyal British subjects celebrate the failure of Guy Fawkes' plot to assassinate His Majesty James VI and I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, at the State Opening of Parliament in 1605. "Remember, remember," the old rhyme goes, "the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot; I know of no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot." Certainly, the Gunpowder Plot has never been forgotten, although today the holiday is generally treated more as an occasion for revelries than a celebration of our then-King's survival; on the plus side, although the 5th is today more about fireworks and bonfires than treason it has shed most of the anti-Catholic aspects of its celebration in the past. Most people now associate the "guy" being burned on the bonfire with Guy Fawkes himself, though clever clogs will tell you it was originally supposed to represent the Pope- that old rhyme goes on to say, "a rope, a rope, to hang the Pope, a penn'orth of cheese to choke him, a pint of beer to wash it down, and a jolly good fire to burn him."

Cover of the 1980s graphic
novel V for Vendetta.
While few mourn the deserved death of anti-Catholic prejudice in the UK (although it appears to be making a comeback among secular liberals incensed at the Church's refusal to admit its teachings over the last 1,000+ years have been wrong and join the secular humanist brigade, and in Northern Ireland it has sadly never gone away), I for one find it disturbing that the original meaning of the holiday- celebrating the King's safety- has become so twisted. The graphic novel and 2006 film adaptation V for Vendetta played a role in this; featuring a terrorist wearing a Guy Fawkes mask who fights against an evil, fascist government in an alternate history version of the United Kingdom, the franchise celebrates Guy Fawkes as "a great citizen" who wished to "remind the world that fairness, justice, and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives." And so a religious terrorist who aimed to kill hundreds and establish a Catholic police state in the place of a Protestant police state becomes a hero of liberty, with "Guy Fawkes masks" becoming associated with groups such as the Occupy "movement" and the online "hacktivist" group Anonymous. In 400 years' time, I wonder if anyone will be wearing Osama bin Laden masks and celebrating the 9th September.

Children in the UK still learn the story of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot from a young age, and recently the holiday has experienced a rise in popularity. Although I was more of a Halloween fan as a child, sweets and costumes somewhat lose their appeal as one gets older, whilst fireworks remain as spectacular as ever- and how could a monarchist resist a holiday celebrating the King's survival of a coup d'├ętat? Certainly, Halloween in its modern form is predominantly an American export, whilst the 5th November is a homegrown holiday and the closest thing the UK has to a national day- so it's patriotic to celebrate it, too. Hopefully this holiday will endure, as will the story of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators; but the most important thing to remember on the 5th November is that we are celebrating not the conspirators but their failure, and above all else today is a day to celebrate the triumph of the legitimate government over a terrorist plot.

Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

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