Thursday, November 09, 2006

Guy Fawkes

Last weekend the English celebrated their annual effigy-burning festival, Guy Fawkes Day. This is, indisputably, an odd event, the only holiday in the world (to my knowledge) named after a terrorist. It’s also the only holiday marking an execution that I can think of, aside of Good Friday.

The story, for those not in the know, involves a former soldier from York, who attempted to blow up the English parliament and kill the king on 5 November, 1606. The plot was stopped; Fawkes was tortured, and was eventually executed.

Being a surrogate Londoner, I wandered down to the local celebration in Hackney the other night. The friend who accompanied me (another Canadian) warned me that the London version of this had become a bit watered down. It was indeed—there were no effigies in Victoria Park Sunday evening, burning or otherwise. The only open flames were gas torches set as backdrop for a pithy stage show, centring on a mythical political tax rebellion against an evil emperor, apparently based on a Bengali folk tale. Lots of pretty fireworks, but no connection especially British history.

Also no connection to the holiday’s bizarre overtones. Celebrating the torture and death of an attempted terrorist has, of course, rather queasy associations these days. But then, celebrating with a South Asian parable while British troops are in occupation of Afghanistan is pretty strange too. In the story told that night no one at all dies, and the theme is easy liberation—freedom without consequences. The historical event celebrated is shadowed by sectarian overtones (Fawkes was Catholic, James I was Protestant), and by questions about the limits of political activism.

The British are a fairly liberal and a famously pragmatic lot, and they have tended to either gracefully gloss over or simply openly embrace the occasion’s uneasiness. There is, however, no time like the present to find cause for debate in these events. The British polity survived the event and thrived afterward—democracy bloomed properly only long after the instability of the Reformation. One would hope that there were lessons in this not only for the British public—British electorate—but also for the outside world, not least their transatlantic ally who seem to have some degree of trouble dealing with the idea of political dissent and with political violence. Thus is hardly the time for folk tales with empty happy endings.

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