I'll always remember the fifth of November
There’s a joke that appears on social media every year around this time. It’s a 16th century drawing of Guy Fawkes and the caption reads: “The last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions.”
If you’re not English, then you may have to be reminded of who Guy Fawkes is. Although to many outside of Blighty he’s just another figure from school history lessons, in England he is a household name who is remembered and celebrated every year on November 5 in a really spectacular way.
I’ve lived in Belfast for 25 years and one of the things that I really do miss is our good old-fashioned Bonfire Night, which for various reasons never caught on in Northern Ireland. Unlike the Ulster bonnies on July 12, which are often criticised for dividing the community, this event actually brings together Catholics and Protestants. In order to explain how, I’ll have to remind you of that long-since forgotten history lesson.
When James I came to the throne in 1604, it was hoped that he would be more tolerant and sympathetic towards Catholics than his predecessor Elizabeth had been. This was proved wrong; so a plot was formed by 13 Catholic conspirators hoping to bring down the government by planting 37 barrels of gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament. Guy Fawkes was one of the ringleaders. However, the plot was foiled when one of them got cold feet and tipped off a member of parliament, who subsequently informed the king. Guy Fawkes was captured red-handed as he was rolling one of the barrels into place directly under the House of Lords. He and the rest of the men were captured, tortured, charged with treason and executed. As word spread, the country celebrated or cursed, depending on their political and religious backgrounds.
Nowadays in England everyone celebrates Guy Fawkes night, but there are still certain subtle differences. Traditionally, in the distant past, fireworks were supposed to represent what might have happened if the plot succeeded, with the the gunpowder going off and lighting up the surrounding sky. So the communities who regarded the plotters as a group of daring heroes tended to go all-out on the night with spectacular firework displays. Meanwhile, those who considered Guy Fawkes to be a treacherous traitor of king and country celebrated the event with a huge pyre on which they burnt a life-sized effigy of Guy Fawkes and cheered as it went up in flames.
Regardless of your background, this made for a really exciting and fun event and it is still celebrated to this day. The political connotations have long-since disappeared and everyone joins in.
So as I have been in England all week nursing my dad, I took advantage of the occasion and went along to the bonfire night celebrations at the local park. As Preston is a very multicultural town there were people from all backgrounds there – not just Catholics and Protestants alike, but Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, all gathered together to enjoy the seasonal spectacle.
So that’s the history of the event in a nutshell. As for the rest of the Bonfire Night customs and how they evolved, I haven’t a clue. For example, for one night only, treacle toffee is always on offer. A special type of spicy ginger cake called Parkin, as well as toffee apples and sometimes roasted chestnuts, too. But the strangest of all the traditional fare has got to be ‘parched peas’, which are specific to the Lancashire region. These are dried black peas that have been cooked in highly salted water and served in a newspaper cone with lashings of vinegar and everyone — but everyone — in our neck of the woods makes a giant pan-full to eat around on November the fifth. They are generally very hard to the extent of being almost indigestible, so possibly they are meant to represent bullets that were fired at the conspirators ... It’s a long shot, but it’s all part of the tradition when you remember, remember the fifth of November.