Guy Fawkes Night, history, and memory

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

– English 19th century folk verse

Yes, it’s the fifth of November, the weirdest day in the British calendar! Tonight, we celebrate the thwarting of a terrorist plot over four hundred years ago. An attempt to blow up Parliament and the King is ritually condemned using explosives, bonfires, and outdoor drinking.

This is Britain. Any celebration involves some sort of drinking.

I love bonfire night. Living in Leeds, I get to go to one of the most spectacular displays in the country, thanks to the massive effort at Roundhay Park. There’ll be a bonfire the size of an Aztec temple and a fireworks display that would knock your socks off. Thousands of people from across West Yorkshire come to see it, so the air is full of gasps and cheers. I can smell the smoke and hear the inane chatter of the local radio hosts already.

Even if I wasn’t going to a great display, I’d love bonfire night. The spectacle, the shared ritual, getting back into the warm afterwards, it’s great fun.

But is it actually much good for remembering the past?

I mean sure, we all know the name of Guy Fawkes and the first few lines of that poem. School kids get taught the story long before they learn about bigger, more recent events. So in that sense, it’s emblazoned across our minds like the memory of a bad breakup.

But if remembering the past is about avoiding its mistakes, then we really aren’t remembering the gunpowder plot very well. It was a product of a time of deep division, of polarised religious and political views. A time when minorities were oppressed and scapegoated. All of which sounds a bit too familiar.

The fact that we bang on about Guy Fawkes even reinforces a bad lesson. We ignore the fact that he represented a larger group and a deeper division. He is the scapegoat, ritually thrown on the fire every year.

As a historian, it pains me. Even I can’t remember the other conspirators without looking on Wikipedia. We’re remembering the faintest surface details and using them to celebrate someone’s messy demise. That’s kind of ugly and definitely missing the point.

I still love bonfire night. Nothing in the world is perfect, but some things are too awesome to miss out on. But as an act of remembering, it leaves a lot to be desired.


Comments are closed.