Saturday 5 November 2016

Trying to Like the Fifth of November by Joan Lennon

I came to the whole 5th of November thing late, as an adult, and let's face it, I'm just not a fan.  It's just too gory and violent and religiously intolerant and, well, pants.  But, 5th of the month's my History Girl slot, so I thought I should try.  Try to find something to say about Guy Fawkes/Gunpowder Plot/Bonfire Night that was a bit more positive.  Off I wandered, from images ...


... to poetry ...   

The Fifth of November

    Remember, remember!
    The fifth of November,
    The Gunpowder treason and plot;
    I know of no reason
    Why the Gunpowder treason
    Should ever be forgot!
    Guy Fawkes and his companions
    Did the scheme contrive,
    To blow the King and Parliament
    All up alive.
    Threescore barrels, laid below,
    To prove old England's overthrow.
    But, by God's providence, him they catch,
    With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
    A stick and a stake
    For King James's sake!
    If you won't give me one,
    I'll take two,
    The better for me,
    And the worse for you.
    A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
    A penn'orth of cheese to choke him,
    A pint of beer to wash it down,
    And a jolly good fire to burn him.
    Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
    Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
    Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

English Folk Verse (c.1870) from Poem of the Week.  

... to North American history ...

In 1775, when the Continental Army was trying to form an alliance with Catholic French Canadians to help throw out the British, George Washington found out how his troops were planning to celebrate "Pope Night".  You can hear his exasperation in the orders that ensue:
“As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America:

“At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.”
(Quotation source: General orders for 5 Nov 1775, George Washington Papers, American Memory Project of the Library of Congress.

Image source: Washington portrait from the collections of The Bostonian Society/Old State Museum.)

... to cartoons ...

Punch magazine, November 1850 
a commentary on the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England

It wasn't going well.  And then I read this, from Mary Poppins' author P. L. Travers, writing in 1943 about the ban on Guy Fawkes Day celebrations because of the blackout.

"Since 1939, however, there have been no bonfires on the village greens. No fireworks gleam in the blackened parks and the streets are dark and silent. But this darkness will not last forever. There will some day come a Fifth of November — or another date, it doesn't matter — when fires will burn in a chain of brightness from Land's End to John O' Groats. The children will dance and leap about them as they did in the times before. They will take each other by the hand and watch the rockets breaking, and afterwards they will go home singing to the houses full of light...."

Bonfire Night linked to thoughts of hope and freedom from war - at last, something I could like!  And then I realised that I had never, in fact, read a Mary Poppins book.  So I got hold of Mary Poppins Opens the Door (Chapter One:  The Fifth of November) and I read it.  And now I have a new pet hate.  That woman!  The way she mistreats those children - introducing them to wonders and then trying to make them think they hadn't seen what they'd just seen - psychological damage much?  But that's a dislike for another day.

Other History Girls musings on this particular day can be found from Gillian Polack here, Celia Rees here, and Sue Purkiss here - they do a much better job of making it interesting, but that's me done with it, till 5th November next year ...

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Silver Skin.


Becca McCallum said...

Ouch. Religious intolerance aside, I am an unashamed Guy Fawkes Night fan. This is probably because for me it's all wrapped up with memories of childhood. Wearing our warmest clothes, we'd head to my grandparent's house, where my uncles would have been building a huge bonfire for weeks before. It would be getting dark, and we'd change into gumboots before walking into the long grass of the field behind the house. My uncles would be out there already, adding further bits of wood and garden rubbish to their creation, or nailing catherine wheels to the fence.

As darkness fell, someone would light the fire, using scrunched up balls of newspaper and copious amounts of petrol. Neighbours would appear out of the darkness, bearing trays of homemade sausage rolls, and cups full of piping hot soup. People would stand around, inching closer to the fire as the darkness grew, and finding yourself outside the circle of light and noise brought on an irrational fear.

Joan Lennon said...

And not an effigy in sight - your memories sound great!

Susan Price said...

You give us an interesting side-long look at it all, Joan.

Like Becca, I love Bonfire Night; but then, I was brought up with it. (I was burned by an escaping jumping jack while still a toddler.)
As children, my brothers and I loved the anticipation - Bonfire Night, like other festivals, was strictly limited in those days and didn't stretch out for weeks, even months, on either side. We loved the bright lights and colours in the darkness, the slight sense of danger, the sensuality of the cold night and the hot fire, hot drinks, hot food.

But we hardly gave Guy Fawkes himself, or the blowing up of Parliament a thought. Yes, we knew what it was supposed to be about. We were taught all that: but it had no meaning for us. The important thing was the bonfire, the fireworks, the gathering.

In a similar way, we celebrated Christmas, loyally repeating many of the folk-customs. We decorated a tree and the house generally, we put out mince-pies for Father Christmas, we hung up stockings, we bought and wrapped gifts, we had a special meal on the day - but we were a house of athiests. The christianity of Christmas meant nothing to us.

Is this what you get when you overlay ancient pagan festivals with later beliefs? Not that I'm suggesting we were pagans - we weren't, and gave no more thought to Samhain or Yule than we did to November 5th or Christmas. But we repeated the rituals because: they were old: because our parents and grandparents and great-great-greats had: because we enjoyed them and looked forward to them. They were an end in themselves.

But I can see how, especially with Bonfire Night (we called it, note, 'Bonfire Night, not Guy-Fawkes Night) you would have to be brought up with it from infancy, so it became familiar before you ever starting thinking about it. - If I'd learned about its (supposed) history as an adult, I imagine I'd feel exactly the same about it as you do.

Becca McCallum said...

Susan, we called it Bonfire Night too!

Susan Price said...

And 'Father Christmas' not 'Santa Claus'!

Yvonne said...

My childhood memories of Bonfire night include the fireworks, home-made toffee, parkin, cups of cocoa and soup, jacket potatoes and being allowed to stay up way past my bedtime. In school I learned the significance of the occasion, but I'm sure I never gave poor Guy Fawkes a thought on Bonfire Night!

Gillian Polack said...

Thank you for linking to my post! I loved yours.

Ironically (Travers being Australian) we don't do bonfire night here any more. Melbourne did, when I was a kid (as I said in my post), but a Melbourne friend tells me that this year she got out a big barbecue kettle and built a fire in that, for that was the only legal way she could have a bonfire. This is partly for safety reasons, but also partly because we somehow ended up bringing Catholic vs Protestant arguments with us and 5 November is considered inflammatory. I only learned this after I did the post, because my background was so different I didn't know just how bad the antagonism was between the two in Australia until quite recently. I understand getting rid of it, but I miss the fireworks!