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David Bouchier: Gunpowder, Treason And Plot

Seth Wenig
Guy Fawkes masks are displayed in a section about hacking at Spyscape in New York in February.

November 5th, otherwise known as Guy Fawkes Night, was my favorite night of the year when I was growing up in England. The fireworks were wonderful: majestic Roman candles, spinning Catherine wheels, and unreliable rockets that we launched out of old lemonade bottles, and that might land almost anywhere, like unguided missiles. Every backyard was ablaze with colored lights, and many houses were ablaze too. The fire engine and ambulance bells clanged throughout the night, adding to the drama.

This was long before the days of safety warnings. We were allowed to hold the smaller fireworks in our hands, sometimes with painful results. The big fireworks called “bangers” went off like grenades, and sounded even better inside an iron garbage can. Every child carried a supply of jumping firecrackers that shot off unpredictably in all directions, sometimes lodging in people’s clothing, and exploding as they went. Strategically used, these firecrackers could send elderly aunts into a state of nervous collapse, so they had to be revived with smelling salts.

It was the most fun we had all year, the most fun that any small boy could possibly hope for. Yet the real glory and centerpiece of Guy Fawkes’ night was the bonfire, a huge construction as it seemed to a child. The material was lovingly collected weeks ahead, and the fire was ritually lit at dusk. Atop the fire sat the central symbolic personage in this strange festival, the Guy, a human figure made of straw and dressed in old clothes, with a mask and a hat, which was burned at the height of the celebration.

This barbaric ceremony had a historical origin, as all such ceremonies do. Our heartless execution of the stuffed Guy represented a piece of British history. In 1605, on this date, a man called Guy Fawkes and a number of co-conspirators concealed twenty barrels of gunpowder in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament, with the aim of blowing up King James I and his chief ministers. But the conspirators were caught before the gunpowder could be exploded, and briskly executed.

It is sad to realize that the romantic Guy Fawkes was nothing but an early terrorist. He might even be called the first modern terrorist. His plot failed, as most such plots do fail in the end, and I’m sure he could never have imagined the bizarre way in which his memory is kept alive more than four hundred years later.

Now we have a kinder, gentler procedure for changing governments, although there is clearly a lingering nostalgia for political violence. In Britain it’s not uncommon to see bumper stickers with the message: “Come back Guy Fawkes, your country needs you.”  But that’s really just a bit of politically incorrect humor. Mr. Fawkes was a deranged partisan of the kind we can do without. Politics in his time was essentially about religion, with two opposing faiths and no ballot box to decide the balance between them. When politics becomes religion, we are on our way back to Guy Fawkes and the battle between true believers. Fortunately we now have something called democracy, and faith is not necessary. Instead of just believing we can think, and vote with our heads.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.