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A Penny for the Guy?

Remember, remember the fifth of November,

Gunpowder, treason and plot,

We see no reason,

Why gunpowder treason,

Should ever be forgot!

It was November 4th, which meant that tomorrow would be November 5th, and that meant Guy Fawkes Day and Bonfire Night. The people around here would mark the occasion with bonfires and fireworks, commemorating Guy Fawkes’ unsuccessful attempt to blow up both Houses of Parliament exactly four centuries ago, on November 5th, 1605. The festivities originated when Londoners joyfully lit bonfires to celebrate the fact that King James was still alive and his attempted assassin captured. Over time, fireworks were added and effigies of Guy burned on bonfires up and down England.

Now, four hundred years later, the wood had begun piling up in the garden below our window, a post in the center erected where the celebrants would place Guy for burning. Once again I got that atavistic crawling sensation that just below the surface of the most consciously civilized city on earth lived the Beltane Wickerman.

Like so much of the celebrations surrounding Guy Fawkes Day, the poem itself seems jolly enough, continuing,

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,

‘twas his intent

to blow up the King and the Parliament.

Three score barrels of powder below,

Poor old England to overthrow:

By God’s providence he was catch’d

With a dark lantern and burning match.

Holloa boys, holloa boys, make the bells ring.

Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

Hip hip hoorah!

But then it turns dark,

A penny loaf to feed the Pope.

A farthing o’ cheese to choke him.

A pint of beer to rinse it down.

A faggot of sticks to burn him.

Burn him in a tub of tar.

Burn him like a blazing star.

Burn his body from his head.

Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.

Hip hip hoorah!

Hip hip hoorah!

You could sense the anger that must have flared in that crowd way back in the 1600’s, drunk and vicious, their nationalism and hate of Guy and his co-conspirators, Roman Catholics—the otherflaring across the countryside. There’s nothing like this nationalism nowadays, and what there is remains mostly below the surface, rising in an occasional hot bubble of soccer hooliganism or anti-Pakistani/anti-Indian sentiment.

In anticipation of the day, England’s children were out on the streets earning money for fireworks—or sweets where fireworks were illegal—by dressing up life-size effigies of Fawkes and carting them around the city, asking passersby, “Penny for the Guy?” I had my own encounter with a pair of boys late that evening at the brick entrance to the Maida Vale station. Like a pair of tiny bouncers over a drunk, they stood guard on either side of their Mr. Fawkes, who lay stuffed and slumped on the sidewalk, his back propped against the station wall, a Brooklyn sweatshirt keeping him warm and an upturned baseball cap full of coins on his lap. In these boys’ version of events, Fawkes had not only been a Papist, but a Noo Yokuh besides. I pitched him some change from one anti-monarchist American to another, and hurried on.

The next evening was Bonfire Night. As darkness lowered on the garden we could see the dim, small forms of children beginning to gather, forming a ring around the pyre, and we went down to join them in the garden. Stacks of branches, logs, and broken pallets made a dome on the grass fifteen feet across and about half as tall. In the center was Guy, tied to a chair, his head a pink balloon with a face and beard painted on in magic marker.

It was time. Someone, the gardener perhaps, reached into the pile with a burning stick and lit the wood. At this, the children began dancing around the pyre, shouting to their parents, “Look, he’s burning!” and “When is his head going to go?” Sparklers were handed out all around, and Aline bent down to share hers with a little girl who had arrived late.

Within a few minutes, flames poured up the face of the Guy and the pink balloon popped, the sound masked by the noise of the fire. Children clapped with glee and parents applauded as they had from the first time. My own admiration was for the fact that they didn’t feel the need to submerge the origins of their celebrations as deeply as we Americans do. They were simply re-enacting the ritual with name, date, and—for me at least—some of the horror intact.

Perhaps my discomfort was due to my inability to deal with a ritual whose origins remained so recognizably human. Our nearly 400-year-old celebration, Thanksgiving, is much more cheerful and much more sanitized. It’s been converted to modern use by various states and presidents until not even the original date or flavors remain. We may still be celebrating Thanksgiving, but not one of these dishes I’ll be eating this Thanksgiving were on the original menu: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, and  pie (pumpkin or otherwise) were not available to the first pilgrim settlers. Then again, in all fairness, the Guy Fawkes story isn’t celebrated dead-on the way it was originally either. He wasn’t burned at the stake. He was tortured, hung, disemboweled, and cut in four. I guess we all have the need to make history just a little bit safer.

Personally I was glad to stick to the moderated version of Guy Fawkes death. Half an hour later, when the fire had largely burned itself out, the fireworks began. Skyrockets shot up between the trees and exploded in ribbons and bows of fire. Climbing up to the roof of our flat we could see over the city and the glow of bonfires as well as fireworks were evident throughout London. From nightfall on Bonfire Night until early the next morning, it seemed like a peaceable Blitz all over the flammable old town.

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