Tuesday, 8 November 2011

November in England I - Guy Fawkes Night

Above is Guy Fawkes by Cruikshank, looking distinctly reflective - as well he might. I'm not sure how well the story of Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night (5th November) is known overseas. If it is little known in the USA, I'm not surprised as George Washington not unreasonably told his troops to stop celebrating it on the 'nothing to do with us any more' principle.

Fawkes was what would now be called a terrorist. He and a number of catholic co-conspirators decided that the new king, James I, who had proved a sore disappoinment to them by the enactment of further anti-catholic laws was best blown up together with his Parliament (the gunpowder plot). The main conspirator was named Robert Catesby and readers of twentytwelve will recall that the Gilbert family cat is called Catesby but I digress.

A load of barrels of gunpowder were stored in a cellar underneath the House of lords hidden behind firewood ready to blow away the King and parliament on the occasion of the state opening of the latter. To cut a long story short, the plot was discovered and Fawkes was found leaving the cellar, shortly after midnight, and arrested. He was then tortured (a legal note: torture is and always was contrary to the common law - torture took place under royal perogative) and conducted himself with considerable courage under torture but was broken in the end.

Having signed his confession, Fawkes and seven co-conspirators were duly tried, the outcome never being in issue. they were sentenced to be drawn backwards to his death, by a horse, his head near the ground. They were to be 'put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both'. Their genitals would be cut off and burnt before their eyes, and their bowels and hearts removed. They would then be decapitated, and the dismembered parts of their bodies displayed so that they might become 'prey for the fowls of the air'.

Rather a stiff sentence, I'm sure all will agree. The paper above shows Fawkes' usual signature below and the faint and barely decipherable signature (to his confession) above indicating the debilitating effects of torture. He also died at the hanging part, thus spoiling his tormentors' fun.

A suitably pleased parliament, not having been blown up, passed the Observance of 5th November Act 1605 - a piece of legislation not noted for the restraint of its prose. And so it was, every 5th November Guy Fawkes was burned in effigy up and down the country, fireworks were let off and strong drink taken.

'Remember remember the fifth of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

I see no reason why gunpowder, treason

Should ever be forgot...'

But recently something odd has happened. The villain has become something of a hero. The starting point is probably the disrepute into which politicians have fallen and the dystopian film V For Vendetta which gave the world a cool Guy Fawkes mask (the rabbit has one - it hangs on a peg in his kitchen).

Suddenly the Guy Fawkes mask was all over everywhere like a rash. The libertarian blogger Old Holborn uses the mask to (largely) preserve his anonymity. And then there is of course the Guido Fawkes blog - the rabbit is not a fan of the latter, consisting as it does of a lot of self-satisfied self pleasuring but it at least provides a harmless outlet to Tourettes sufferers, ie his commenters. Oh and of course the hacktivists Anonymous who recently delighted the rabbit with their double whammy of an attack on a Finnish neo Nazi site and (allegedly) Israeli secret service and army websites. Nice one times two!

Strange days indeed. The journalist John Harris, who the rabbit usually likes to read, had a thoughtful piece in last Friday's Guardian on the moribund mainstream of politics, starting with 'I miss the Liberal Democrats'. The rabbit sort of does too - there is a lot of be said for radical liberals. Whisper it not but they are a great improvement on the Labour left as they are not in the same thrall to top down statist solutions. The problem is the non-radical liberals - the Orange Book knobs and the like - it seems that the Orange Book knobs have the whip hand which is a pity. Harris quotes Italian Marxist and rabbit fave Antonio Gramsci: 'The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear'.

Or as Hunter S. Thompson put it: 'when the going gets weird, the weird go professional'.

Part II of November in England to follow tomorrow. Apologies for being (mostly) serious. Normal silliness will resume soon.


tony said...

All Together Now.......

sybil law said...

I actually kind of knew the guy Fawkes story, but I was always confused as to why he seemed celebrated - now, I get it. Well, kind of. :)
Man, they really knew how to do torture in the old days, eh?

white rabbit said...

Tony - Maybe I'm being a bit thick and very nice thank you but the connection would be???

Sybil - they certainly knew how to lay on a good protracted sadism show in those days. It was called 'lawful execution'

Catch Her in the Wry said...

Guy Fawkes masks are showing up at many of the "Occupy" demonstrations in the US.