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For Fawkes? Sake

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Remember Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day
James Sharpe
Harvard University Press

Reviewed by Steve Finbow

This is the second version of this review. The first was all about the hegemony of American culture. You know, the usual stuff about how American values, American morality, and American money dilute and negate the cultures of other countries. Then something happened to make me throw that draft into my trash basket and start all over again.

It was surprising how much of an uproar there was in 2001, when the Taliban used tank shells and mortars to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas. Then again, America?s concept of Buddhism ? filtered through Jack Kerouac?s Dharma Bums, Richard Gere, and Brad Pitt ? is a romantic one. If America does not romanticise religions, it fears them. But, hold on, maybe that is what is happening in the United Kingdom: our myths, our icons, even our anti-heroes are being destroyed by Hollywood?s polished bombshells.

My argument in the original piece, for what it is worth, was that Halloween has replaced Guy Fawkes Day in the UK as the primary means of celebrating the end of autumn and the beginning of winter. There have always been celebrations of one kind or another at this time of the year in the UK. Until a few years ago, the principle celebration was Guy Fawkes night, but recently trick- or-treating has replaced penny-for-the-Guy as a means for children to obtain chocolate and candy. Neil Gaiman writes in Neverwhere:

?It did not seem so very long ago? that the children of London had wheeled and dragged their Guys around in early November displaying them to passers-by, collecting their fireworks before burning them on Bonfire Night, but he was damned if he?d seen one for, what, a decade? Half a century.?

I think half a century is stretching it a bit, but the children and their Guys have definitely disappeared from the streets of London. Is it fear of predatory paedophiles? Are people more scared of robbers now that the local Bobby no longer walks his beat? Or is it that Halloween is a hell of a lot more interesting and fun? On Bonfire night, children get to stand around in the cold eating e-coli-enriched barbecued meat while watching their parents? attempts at building bonfires and letting off fireworks; whereas, on Halloween kids get to dress up as witches, skeletons, and ghosts and collect bucketfuls of candy from heretofore-scowling neighbors.

When I was a child, about two weeks before November the Fifth, my brother and I would rummage through collections of old clothing our grandmother had saved for us. We would stuff this clothing with used newspapers until the Guy resembled a short adult. The head would usually be a balloon, with the face drawn on in felt-tip pen; or, if our parents were feeling generous or we had saved our pocket money, we would buy a Guy Fawkes mask from the local toyshop. The mask of Guy Fawkes looked like the face of a 17th century Spaniard ? long dark hair, long droopy moustache, goatee ? which is interesting, because Fawkes came from Yorkshire and, despite having adopted the name Guido, was not Spanish. My argument is the Guy Fawkes?s physiognomy is a convergence of Fawkes?s portrait amongst other conspirators in a 1606 woodcut; the rakish looks of the beheaded Charles the First ? James the First?s son and scourge of Parliament ? and the moustache-twiddling villain of Victorian melodrama.

A quick historical breakdown of events leading up to the Gunpowder Plot: James the First sits on the throne of Britain; religious persecution of Catholics is prevalent; thirteen men conspire to exterminate the monarchy and bring the Catholic Earl of Northumberland to power; on November the Fifth, 1605, Guy Fawkes is caught in a storage room under the Houses of Parliament with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. Ever since, the people of the United Kingdom have commemorated November the Fifth for evading an act of religious terrorism and escaping a life under Catholic dominion. Guy Fawkes Day ? or variously Fireworks Night or Bonfire Night ? eventually changed from a day of religious thanksgiving to a more secular celebration, during which effigies of Guy Fawkes burn atop bonfires and people let off fireworks.

Remember Remember is a cultural history of Guy Fawkes Day. It makes explicit references to the similarity between the events of 1605 and the first decade of the 21st century: James the First as George Bush; Guy Fawkes as Osama bin Laden; the Houses of Parliament (not the Gothic revivalist building that stands today) as the World Trade Center. But there is also humour. The plotters, after getting a quantity of the gunpowder wet, decided to dry it in front of a fire; this act of reckless stupidity caused numerous injuries. There are also fascinating insights into the changing nature of the celebrations as well as similar celebrations: for instance, on Pope Day in late 17th and early 18th century New England, effigies of the pope were burned in the streets (although the American version did not follow the English custom of stuffing the effigies with live cats).

What the book shows us is that empires under threat will resort to torture. Both the Stuart regents and the Bush regime used violent means to maintain power. The sexual and physical abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay was nothing compared to the torturers of old London Town. The plotters, manacled and stretched on the rack, underwent an agonising and brutal death.

??he shall be strangled, being hanged up by the neck? then he is to be cut down alive, and to have his privy parts cut off and burnt before his face? his bowels and inlaid parts taken out and burnt? his head cut off? his body quartered, and the quarters set up in some high and eminent place??

Which reminds me of the new horror film Hostel ? in which backpackers are lured through sex into the depravity of torture ? and this in turn brings me nicely to the reason I had to rewrite this review: V For Vendetta, the movie based on Alan Moore?s cult comic book, in which a man dressed as Guy Fawkes wages war against a totalitarian UK government. Hmmm? Will this herald a return of British children wheeling their Guys in rusted perambulators and shopping trolleys to street corners and asking, ?Penny for the Guy, guv?? Or will American influence hold, and will kids now annoy everyone by going door to door dressed as witches and skeletons asking, ?Trick or treat?? I am not sure but Americans will find out who Guy Fawkes was, not because he was an iconic, very English anti-hero, but because he stars in a film with Natalie Portman.

Please remember, remember to buy the book.

Steve Finbow, who contributes the column Pond Scum to Me Three, a collection of which is now available in book form as Pond Scum and Other Effluvia , is currently working on a libretto for Bat Saarrl, an opera whose title character, a mongoloid child grieving over the theft of his beloved Pop Tarts, pursues his tormentors across time and space to exact a terrible vengeance. Pretty gripping stuff, Steve.


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