10 November, 2014

Remember, remember, these dizzy days of November

November is a tough month in US study abroad. The weather turns windy, cold and wet, you are practically ‘skint’ given some unanticipated outlay on fall break, work is piling up, you miss family and friends, you’re getting a  sore throat, your internship is getting pedestrian, etc.

To most Americans, the month of November means several things: (1) Thanksgiving, the holiday [and religious observance, with origins in harvest festivals] that looks backward to a legendary past and which reveals so much of the American mind-set; (2) travel misery, made worse - especially in the north - by bad weather: brave is the person that has a stay-at-home, behind locked doors, with phone disconnected,  couch-potato holiday; (3) Black Friday, frenzied start of the Christmas shopping season, when puffs of smoke arise from over-heated credit cards; (4) the midterm or full term elections which generally tell us two things: the electoral fickleness of the democratic crowd [which is true in most democracies]; and the French writer Alexis D Tocqueville’s argument that US liberties were rooted in decentralised government.

(5) And with the Giants beating the Royals in a great baseball post season, the gridiron comes into its own. London welcomed 6 NFL teams this autumn.  Last Sunday, America’s team, the 6-3 Dallas Cowboys, lined up against the 1-8 Jacksonville Jaguars, the squad with the best prospect of becoming the first non USA franchise in the league’s history, if it moves to London. To home campus students it also means the CORTACA JUG Match, lost on the pitch in 2013, but won in the media as Ithaca students, however wild during the game, did not riot in the streets as the SUNY Cortlanders did.

In Britain in general, and London in particular, November means four things.  First, on the 5th of November, comes Guy Fawkes Day.  You will have noticed the fireworks displays recently.  The fireworks are part of “bonfire nights” when people get together to watch the spectacular displays and also to throw their “guys”, i.e., their effigies of one of the leading conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, Guy Fawkes, on to the fire.  Fawkes and his co-conspirators were arrested, tried and executed for attempting to blow up Parliament on November 5th, 1605, the day King James I [James VI of Scotland, the only child of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots] was due to open Parliament.  The conspirators were Catholics disappointed by the failure of the Stuart king and parliament to repeal Elizabethan anti-Catholic legislation.  So bonfire night is popularly conceived as a celebration of the liberties of the Englishman compared to the intolerance, superstition and oppression of other regimes [see the allegorical treatment of this theme in the Painted Hall at Greenwich.] Bonfire night also suggests how brutal society was during the wars of religion in the 16th-17th centuries. We have already witnessed two such locations: (1) the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford where the coach dropped us off, and Smithfield in London where Queen Mary [1553-58] reportedly ate her chicken lunch while watching protestants burn. I wonder which wine the sommelier would suggest to go with this royal repast. Incidentally, the events of 1605 also link to the USA. More radical protestants were equally outraged by Jacobean intolerance that they risked everything on the dangerous 3000 mile sea voyage in rickety ships like the Mayflower to practice their version of Christianity freely.

The second great November day is Remembrance Day, the 11th.  At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, World War One came to an end on the Western front.  Most observers and participants had expected that the war would be over by Christmas 1914. But the war developed into an appalling stalemate, especially on the Western Front, until American intervention and the collapse of the German home front led the German High Command to throw in the towel before “bolshevism” spread any further in the German fleet, army and work force.  The British had fought most of the war in Flanders and northern France. This is wet and rich farming land.  With the ground churned up by millions of shells, the whole terrain looked like a no man’s land where nothing could survive.  But the British noticed that poppies grew in the churned up soil.  The poppies were therefore both a symbol of the appalling waste of human life in the war and the hope for renewal and better times ahead. So wear a poppy this week. Proceeds generally go to various veterans’ organisations.  Every year, on the Sunday closest to the 11th, there is a ceremony at the Cenotaph – the national war memorial – in Whitehall.

The third important November event is the Lord Mayor’s Parade on the 2nd Saturday in November [November 8th this year].  This is a tradition dating back to 1215 when King John gave the City of London the privilege to hold an annual mayoral election so long as the Mayor presented himself to the King or the Royal Justices to swear allegiance.  John was trying to win the powerful support of the London financial and commercial elite in his political struggle against the barons.  The procession has become a parade with bands, livery companies, the Lord Mayor in his/her official coach [which normally resides in the Museum of London], youth groups, charities, etc.  The parade is a useful reminder that the City of London is NOT the London that we live and work in.  It is rather the Roman walled city, the so-called square mile, which is home to the banks, stock exchange and other financial institutions that make London one of the world’s leading financial centres.

The fourth big November day here is colloquially known as “SO LONG” day as in ‘so long, it’s been good to know you”. It is rooted to the flip side of thanksgiving and refers to events following the Declaration of Independence. It expresses a British sentiment that it can do without America now that it has Australia to send its convicts and supernumerary agricultural labourers to. Besides, if America had not rebelled in the 18th century it would be the world’s greatest cricket and [proper] football power. Where would that leave the Germans, Brazilians, Argentinians and English?

PS. Pulling American legs on the last one.

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