As I’m writing this, it sounds like the Apocalypse outside! I can only hear the constant sound of explosions and people shouting. Thankfully, we’re not fighting off zombies that arrived too late for Halloween. Today is the 5th of November: Firework Night in the UK! No, we don’t celebrate New Year early here. Quite surprisingly 5th of November commemorates an event that took place over 400 years ago, or rather an event that did NOT take place, but more about this in a moment.
My local council, Tower Hamlets, set up a spectacular fireworks display last Sunday. While more London councils start to ask an entrance fee for something that can be viewed for free in the sky anyway, Tower Hamlets council still keeps the event free to all and accessible to everyone. The pretty lights and the festive smell of burning sulphur would have been enough for me to enjoy the event, but what really put a big grin on my face were the cute little children standing next to me. With every new arrow bursting into a million lights in the sky, the children squealed with delight and exclaimed a big ‘WOOOOOOOW!!!’ all at the same time, like a choir of minions. To accompany this epic visual splendour you might imagine a score of equally grand proportions, but in fact we were entertained by such classics as theme songs to Star Wars, Spider-Man and even Wonder Woman. I can imagine the music curator responsible for the evening’s soundtrack must have had so much fun putting this together.
‘Remember, remember the 5th of November’
This is a memorable quote from one of my favourite films: V for Vendetta. At least, I believed for years that this film was the original source for this catchy quote. The film is based on Alan Moore’s 1980s graphic novel and focuses on the intelligent and charismatic terrorist ‘V’ who plans on blowing up Parliament on the 5th November to put an end to the fascist government ruling over a futuristic and grim United Kingdom. Throughout the entire film V wears his distinctive white mask with an exaggerated-sized smile, a Movember-proof moustache, goatee and rosy cheeks. This signature mask was designed for the graphic novel, made famous by the film and has been used as a symbol for anarchism by protesters in recent years (for example by the Occupy movement). While the mask is intricately linked to the fictional character V, it is actually based on a real historical character: Guy Fawkes.
An English soldier, born in 1570, Guy Fawkes converted to Catholicism during his childhood in Protestant England, and fought for the Spanish against Protestant Dutch reformers in the Low Countries during the Eighty Years’ War (not the best Dutch connection…). When he returned to England he found a group of like-minded fanatical Catholics with whom he plotted to assassinate the Protestant king in order to restore the Catholic monarchy. They planned the Gunpowder Plot, a plot to blow up Parliament on 5th November 1605. Obviously, this scheme failed. Because of his military training and knowledge of explosives, Guy Fawkes was to set off the gunpowder. Unfortunately for the plotters, Guy Fawkes was discovered before he could light the match. After a few days of torture, he admitted the conspiracy and revealed the identity of all those involved. Those were: Thomas, Robert, Thomas, Robert, Thomas, Christopher, Everard, Ambrose, John, Francis, John and, have I mentioned Robert yet? Just imagine the confusion the plotters’ identical names must have caused at the time! The poor men were hanged for their treason to the king and although there were more people involved, Guy Fawkes seems to personify the Gunpowder Plot and remains the key figure who is still ‘celebrated’.
Afterwards, 5th November was announced an official thanksgiving day by law. It was celebrated even in the British colonies as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. For hundreds of years, fire and explosives have been the main theme for this day. There are still bonfires and fireworks today throughout the UK.
Trick or Treat
According to Wikipedia, in Victorian times working-class children gathered wood for the bonfires. They ‘acquired’ wood, food and money from their wealthy fellow-men while singing folk rhymes. Children singing songs while begging for food and money? Could this old British custom even be one of the inspirations for the American tradition of going trick-or-treating on Halloween? Yes, it is. Well, according to this website.
It says it was custom for British children to ‘wear masks and carry effigies while begging for pennies on Guy Fawkes Night’. Indeed up until recently these effigies (life-size handmade figures) were dressed up in trousers and shirts and stuffed with newspapers whilst children begged with ‘penny for the Guy’ as their sales pitch. I’m certain dad might well have been missing his best trousers the next day too! Nowadays, the dolls are given the face of contemporary politicians to ridicule and satirise them, like an episode of Spitting Image.
The Fifth of November (1870)
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive. […]
Read the full poem here.
Last year I saw the impressively elaborate Shakespeare exhibition Staging the world at the British Museum. The portrait below depicting some of the plotters was displayed in the exhibition as it had taken place during Shakespeare’s time. The plot was not only a trending hashtag item of the day, but also made a big impact on Shakespeare, especially considering two of the main conspirators had strong links with his birth town. During the months following the capture of the plotters, the ‘Father of English Literature’ wrote his play Macbeth in which he alludes to the Gunpowder Plot.
And with this portrait, this British history lesson still ends with a subtle Dutch touch. Happy early New Year to all of you!