Penny for the Duck House

Tonight is Guy Fawkes night in the UK, where for over 400 years November fifth has been a day for fireworks, bonfires, and a rather strange symbolic sectarian violence.

I mentioned a week or so ago that British children don’t generally go trick-or-treating. They may, however, hit up adults for spare change in early November, asking for “a penny for the guy” instead of saying “trick or treat”. The guy in this case is an effigy of Guy Fawkes, remembered for his foiled attempt 400 years ago to blow up the houses of Parliament while King James I would be in the building, too.

Children in the UK grow up with the rhyme

Remember, remember, the fifth of November
For gunpowder treason and plot!
I know of no reason
That gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot

The gunpowder treason involved Fawkes and his co-conspirators stashing barrels of gunpowder in the cellars of the Parliament building, which–had Fawkes been around to ignite them–would have cleared out most of the British aristocracy and the royal family in an effort to get rid of the Protestant ruling class and re-install a Catholic monarch. That the explosion would have killed a few Catholics as well apparently gave someone in the know some second thoughts; an anonymous letter to a Catholic nobleman warned him not to attend and so gave the game away. Fawkes was arrested, tortured to confess, and would have been hanged along with his fellows if he hadn’t leapt off the gallows to his death before the hangman got around to him.

People in London set up bonfires in 1605 to celebrate Guy Fawkes’s failure, and people all over Britain and some Commonwealth countries still do–November fifth is also known as Bonfire Night. Children make effigies that are supposd to represent Guy Fawkes and drag them around asking for pennies to spend on fireworks, or they used to do that; I’ve never been asked for my pennies. But somehow, with or without our pennies, a guy is put on top of the bonfire before it’s lit, the fireworks go off, and then, at least if our village is anything to go by, they all eat sausages that are something like hot dogs.

The health and safety regulations that prevent so many forms of fun (or even forms of reasonable ordinary behavior) in the UK these days either don’t apply to Guy Fawkes night, or don’t apply in our village. Everyone who wants to participate meets at the main crossroads where each one can pick up a torch consisting of a can/tin nailed to a long stick, said can or tin being filled with what Americans call kerosene and what the British call parafin. Even tiny kiddies walk around carrying these long sticks, with reservoirs of flaming solvent at the ends, and nobody seems to think this odd. When everybody’s lit up we walk a circuitous route through a little wood and out again near the Boy Scouts’ building, across the main road–where signs have been up for weeks warning motorists that they will experience delays on Nov 5–to the field where the bonfire has been built. We all toss the torches onto the bonfire, and then eat our hotdogs and watch the fireworks.

I doubt that anyone who participates today does so out of anti-Catholic prejudice; this is just another of the winter festivals of fire and light that most societies seem to have.

It’s even possible that what is seen in Britain as a most American expression, to call someone a guy, originates with Fawkes’s name via an intermediate step in which anyone of grotesque appearance was called a guy, as we might say someone is a fright. And if you’re a Harry Potter fan, you might appreciate that Dumbledore’s phoenix is called by the fire-invoking name of Fawkes.

In London this year, Guy Fawkes night is being used to protest the behavior of Parliament once again. The kinds of things that current Members of Parliament have been charging to their expense accounts has created a scandal that seems to have no end, as Member after Member is found to be using public money to support their real estate ventures, pay their families for work that may or may not ever have been done, and buy all manner of bizarre goods and services. One Tory MP paid a couple of thousand pounds to have the moat at his home cleaned out; another paid over sixteen hundred pounds to have a duck house built on an island in his pond.

So this year on Bonfire Night, anti-Parliament protesters will drag an effigy up to Parliament, but it won’t be Guy Fawkes: it’s a duck house. And with the British love of puns I’ve already mentioned, journalists are pointing out that Parliament can’t duck change.

Polite Notice: I’m away on holiday/vacation and there may be no posts for the next week or so.

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Filed under Culture, Current events, History

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