Credit: Creative Commons

Gunpowder, treason & stop

Credit: Creative Commons

Adam Nicholson

A good rhyme can make most things palatable, even when they are at heart repugnant. Take, for instance, today’s event, hot on the heels of Halloween: November 5th, or “Guy Fawkes Night.” Almost every child in the country has been told, at some time or another, to “Remember, remember the fifth of November/The Gunpowder Treason and Plot/I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason/Should ever be forgot.”

It is perhaps one of the most famous verses in the English language, one that most people can recite. So it goes that every year, the fireworks explode, bonfires are lit; in the more traditional celebrations the effigies of Fawkes are burned, and the rhyme doubtless is many times recited. Have you ever wondered what all this pomp and circumstance hides, however?

Naturally, as should be unsurprising, the history is riddled with horror. Fawkes and his fellow conspirators sought to assassinate James I and restore a Catholic succession to the throne; of course, their famous method was the barrels of gunpowder stored beneath Westminster. Upon being discovered, Fawkes was arrested and tortured to the point of confession, revealing and condemning his seven co-conspirators. Together, fastened to wooden hurdles, they were dragged behind a horse to the gallows, whereupon Fawkes watched his co-conspirators be hanged to the point just before death, castrated, disembowelled, decapitated, then dismembered. Fawkes, whether by accident or not, was mercifully spared by virtue of falling on the gallows and breaking his neck; his corpse, however, was still defiled in the manner of his fellows. Naturally, in the torture and execution of would-be assassins, there are no angels on either side; the whole sorry mess is a heinous, bloody tragedy, entirely indicative of those turbulent times.

Fast-forward a few hundred years, however, and pop goes the rockets, swirling and spinning multicoloured in the sky every November 5th. Seldom, I imagine, would anyone ever really think about what happened with the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath while warming themselves next to the bonfire. Amidst all the celebrations, what is being celebrated ironically has been lost.

Though the question remains whether that is such a bad thing after all. If the heart of the matter remains largely unconsidered, is there any need for the holiday at all? Indeed, the arguments to discontinue Guy Fawkes night seem to dramatically outweigh the few good things that could be said for it. Celebrating the centuries-old execution of would-be assassins by the lighting of colourful explosives and large fires is, especially when considered somewhat objectively, a trifle odd at best and downright bizarre at worst. It is well documented every year how pets nationwide are terrified by the random explosions set off on that night and the days before and after. It may seem like a small issue to some, but the cowering of our animals in mortal terror for the sake of an archaic celebration seems unreasonable. More serious, of course, is the licensed selling of gunpowder products and low-level explosives, especially in the world’s current regrettable climate.

Likewise, as Psychreg notes, “While the impact on animals is widely acknowledged, it is becoming more common to accept how this sort of event can harm those dealing with mental illness”. Of especial concern, the mental health organisation notes, is the triggering of PTSD and related ailments by virtue of Guy Fawkes Night; it is acknowledged that “a car backfiring, an image in a newspaper or the sound of a familiar voice can cause these debilitating flashbacks, so imagine what the bang of a rogue firework can do when you’ve had to deal with the danger of hidden explosives.” The stress induced by the random flurries of fireworks must be unimaginable to those of us lucky enough not to be so burdened.

Do pretty colours in the night’s sky really justify the thick smoke that is left thereafter? That is to say, is it really worth licensing the sale of explosives solely for the purpose of celebrating a holiday most people have forgotten the story behind and would probably not care to learn? It is worthwhile interrogating those traditions that linger. Either you are rejoicing at the horrid execution of troubled men, or celebrating the near-miss suffered by a man who today would be considered a tyrant, or you simply let off rockets because that’s what you do in the UK on November 5th. Do you wonder what the point is?

It is not as if fireworks would cease to make an appearance if November 5th were yearly passed by as simply another day. Still the world over would have tremendously magnificent and intricately designed displays every new year (and for every occasion they feel warrants a little bit of a bang, really).

The benefits of opting out of Guy Fawkes night seem to vastly outweigh the fleeting thrill of a gunpowder blast or the warmth of a bonfire lighting: animals the country over would breathe a collective sigh of relief, the incessant flurry of rainbow-coloured bombs would cease to interrupt the quiet of night, explosives would remain rightly difficult to get a hold of, and we wouldn’t be inadvertently propagating the notion that the murky world of Elizabethan politics, and the consequent mutilation of prisoners, is a cause worth having a holiday for. Save yourself for Halloween and just retire Guy Fawkes. Let the man rest, with or without a penny.


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