05 November, 2010

Remember, Remember the 5th of November?

November is a month of remembrances in the UK. The most significant occurs on November 11th, the day when World War One ended, and the day when we remember and give thanks for the sacrifices of the dead, disabled, missing and survivors of all wars. And so we should remember and give quiet thanks to the thousands slaughtered in the grim trench warfare of the western front and in all subsequent wars. Retrospectively, of course, it seems like WWI – unlike WW2 - was a wholly unnecessary war. The pain of separation, wasted lives and broken bodies is greater as a result.

Another November day, the 25th this year, is a huge day for Americans, a day of family gatherings, celebration and thankfulness. November25th is Thanksgiving, not much of a day to remember for the British. They stayed put while radical Protestants took ship on a hazardous 3,000 mile journey across unpredictable waters to get religious freedom. Had they stayed and fought for religious freedom, who knows whether there would still be a monarchy and established church here! Had they stayed they would have learned to play cricket, always an advantage in life.

The strangest of the ‘remembrances’ occurs TODAY, the 5th, Guy Fawkes Day. Like Thanksgiving it is meant to recall the ‘freedoms’ of the English. These freedoms began in the 12th century when the monarchs summoned lords and commoners to a consultative process called ‘Parliament’. In 1605, 400 years after the birth of Parliament, Guy Fawkes and his associates tried to blow up the Palace of Westminster during the State opening. The plot was rumbled in the nick of time, the king, his chief ministers, the bishops, gentlemen from the shires and the royal family were all saved to rule or misrule in perpetuity. Hence Nov 5th recalls English liberties, a reasonable enough event to celebrate.

But, there are two puzzles about our celebrations today. First, should we be celebrating in the way we do? Fireworks are OK, but they do paradoxically suggest that the attempt was successful. What is critical about November 5th is that there was no explosion! Second, the bonfires are even more problematic as participants in the riotous celebrations are meant to hurl ‘guys’ onto the fire and watch them burn. The throwing of human effigies or ‘GUYS’ on to huge bonfires in our city parks recalls the religious zealotry of the wars of religion when Catholics burnt Protestants and vice versa. But Fawkes and his co-conspirators were not burnt: their crime was high treason and punishment for this most serious of crimes was being dragged on a hurdle head down through the streets of London, from the Tower to Westminster in Fawkes’ case, there to have his genitals cut off and displayed in front of him and then to be hung drawn and quartered. Ouch! The same happened to William Wallace three hundred years previous.

I’m not so sure that we should be ‘remembering’ the 5th of November and man’s brutal inhumanity to man.


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