News from Nowhere: Remember, Remember
Britain’s bonfire night offers what the Russian cultural philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin might have seen as the carnivalesque moment of a symbolic and paradoxical rebuke to power. At once it glorifies revolutionary action’s selfless sacrifice and condemns it to the flames.
On Saturday evening, all across the land, the good people of Great Britain burned effigies of a wicked Roman Catholic. God only knows what they did in some of the more sectarian areas of Northern Ireland. One’s tempted to imagine that they may have ignored the effigy part and tried doing it with the real thing.
The previous Saturday night, we had turned the clocks back an hour. Last Saturday, we set our moral calendars back several centuries.
The UK’s cultural heritage inevitably includes a range of most curious customs. External observers may, for example, find it strange enough that each year at the approach of Easter, we commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ by eating warm spiced buns marked with the sign of the cross. It would be like citizens of the United States consuming sniper rifle cookies every 22nd November to remember the assassination of JFK. (You might think that many Americans would swallow anything, however tasteless, but even our KFC-guzzling cousins across the Atlantic might turn their noses up at that.)
Yet the manner in which, on November 5 each year, the British celebrate the foiling of a Papist plot to blow up the House of Lords takes the notion of strangeness to a whole new level of the disturbingly bizarre. This tradition exposes a legacy of violent hatreds and remains a demonstration of religious bigotry whose only vague defence might be that it at least offers an allegorical show of support for the survival of parliamentary democracy.
However, at the same time as we burn effigies of the figurehead of the Catholic plotters, we enjoy lavish firework displays which appear to approximate what it might have looked like if their conspiracy had succeeded and all the gunpowder beneath the Palace of Westminster had gone off. As such, we might admit that the ideological messages of this idiosyncratic annual festival are, to say the least, mixed.
It all started in 1605 when a group of Papists attempted to stage a coup against the English state in a bid to restore a Catholic monarch to the throne. They concealed dozens of barrels of gunpowder beneath the chamber of the House of Lords, where King James I was due to preside at the state opening of parliament.
In the nick of time, the authorities discovered this deadly contraband concealed under piles of wood and coal, along with a suspicious-looking gentleman called Guy Fawkes, who was carrying some matches and insisted his name was Johnson. (He wouldn’t of course be the last Johnson to endeavour to do irreparable damage to the institution of the British parliament.)
On 5th November 1605, the morning after his arrest, Mr. Fawkes was hauled in front of the king and over the next few days was tortured into confessing his guilt and revealing the names of his fellow conspirators. He was eventually sentenced to be executed by hanging the following January, but fell from the scaffold and broke his neck. His body was then cut into quarters, to be distributed to the four corners of the kingdom, as a warning to citizens thinking of turning traitor that it probably wasn’t the best idea they’d had that week.
Fawkes hadn’t been burned at the stake, although that had been a popular method for the dispatch of religious nonconformists since the days of Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley, a trio of protestants immolated in the middle of the sixteenth century by a Catholic queen. It has nevertheless become traditional each year on 5th November to throw an effigy of Guy Fawkes onto a bonfire, and, beneath the flares of extravagantly coloured fireworks, to cheer as we watch him burn.
(Yes, seriously, we still do this. Honestly. Guy Fawkes Night, Fireworks Night, Bonfire Night – it goes by many names. If you don’t believe me, please go ahead and Google it.)
But that’s not the end of the story. The myth of Guy Fawkes has in recent years come to embody a spirit of outrage against the establishment. Indeed, since the success of the graphic novel and subsequent Hollywood movie V for Vendetta, the Guy Fawkes mask has become an international emblem for anti-authoritarian and anarchist action: from the anti-capitalist Occupy movement to the online hacktivist collective known as Anonymous.
Guy Fawkes had called himself Guido while fighting for Spain a few years before his involvement in the gunpowder plot, and that name was in 2004 adopted by a right-wing website established by political blogger Paul Staines. The site, which continues to run today, represents something of a gossip column for Whitehall and Westminster. This online scandal sheet has been responsible for a number of high-profile leaks and has been considered influential in the development of populist libertarian politics in the UK. While speaking at its tenth anniversary party, that other Johnson, Boris, described the platform as providing ‘the dung on the rosebush’ of British public life: an often unpleasant yet essential ingredient in the political mix.
Six years ago, I interviewed Mr. Staines for an article on the impact of blogging on the Brexit referendum. A robust champion of Boris Johnson’s antagonism towards the European Union, Staines was proud to admit that his site was ‘partisan’ and stressed that he wouldn’t ever "pretend to be impartial".
In this sense, he echoed the ideas of the media theorist John Fiske who, in his 1987 book Television Culture, argued that broadcast news should abandon its attempts to bolster its own authority with spurious claims of objectivity and should instead be so honest as to admit to being as inherently subjective as any other form of human expression (A valid enough point but one taken to extremes by Fox News).
When I spoke with him, Mr. Staines also argued for the value of the mass and the mess of digital debate as "an iterative process that constantly and quickly pulls apart inaccuracies – but you’ve got to separate that from the ninety percent of noise."
As Staines had supposed, the online realm overflows with so much noise: the excreta of tawdry trolls and the excrescences of fake news. Yet such marginal detritus as that purveyed by his own website repeatedly reminds us of the potential value of those counter-cultural perspectives, scurrilous assertions, and heresies, which simultaneously challenge and enrich political discourse.
That’s why Staines’s site is named after Guy Fawkes, and it’s why Fawkes isn’t purely and simply a pantomime villain in our national history. He’s in effect something of an anti-hero, a tragic figure whose vainglorious slapstick radicalism appeals to a fundamentally anarchic aspect of the British character. He’s a notable alumnus of that band of outlaws and rebels whose lives we have come to romanticize, for better or for worse: from Robin Hood to Rob Roy, from William Wallace to Nigel Farage.
Everyone loves a bad boy or girl, a disruptor, and we never seem to learn the obvious lessons from the farcical and catastrophic fallout of the unforeseen actions of every single Fawkes, Farage, Johnson, or Trump.
As Elon Musk discovered when he bought Twitter, and as Liz Truss found when she launched her devastating experiment upon the British economy, it’s much easier to shake things up than to try to put them together again. Yet we continue to flirt with the dangerous attractions of these populist rebels.
And that’s why we choose to remember Guy Fawkes each year – why, as the nursery rhyme maintains, there is "no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot". This age-old enemy of the state – a state we ourselves tend at times to distrust – is now annually illuminated by the glory of his memorial pyre beneath night skies lit up by a re-enactment of his anarchic vision. Each year, we afford him a martyr’s death, one which transfigures him into a folk hero and an undying legend, and which begins to atone for the reality of his own awful, absurd, and ignominious end.
As we’d put the clocks back at the end of last month, that iconic London landmark, the great clock of the Palace of Westminster, was – following an extensive programme of repairs – returned to Greenwich Mean Time for the first time since 2017. The Speaker of the House of Commons declared that this would "herald a new beginning" for parliament, although it remains to be seen whether this symbolic fix will really see a reset of the current troubled state of British politics. Nagging controversies over the honesty and probity of the Home Secretary had, in its first few days, already suggested that this latest administration might not be the bright new dawn for which many had hoped.
British politics currently feels very run down: not just like an old battery, but more like old roadkill. Towards the end of last month, the Leader of the House of Commons demonstrated an extraordinary degree of disrespect for the institution of parliament when she caused the suspension of the chamber’s business for an hour by failing to turn up on time at a scheduled session to answer MPs' questions. The previous day it had been reported that she had "stormed out" of Downing Street after having failed to secure a more senior position in the new government. It looked rather like she had grown sick of the whole damned thing.
Yet, as the recent attack on the husband of the Speaker of the American House of Representatives reminded us, such contempt for those offices and individuals dedicated to the service of democracy represents an assault upon that democracy itself. The congressional inquiry into Donald Trump’s incitement of the violent insurrection which shook the United States Capitol in January 2021 has most starkly demonstrated that.
When we laud those charismatic figures whose actions disrupt the structures of established power, we might usefully recall that our democracies, however imperfect, provisional, and immature, are probably better than the authoritarian alternatives towards which anarchic violence tends to lead. There may therefore be more elegant and effective ways to address the taints of corruption and oppression within the system than simply by trying to throw it out or blow it up.
Britain’s bonfire night offers what the Russian cultural philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin might have seen as the carnivalesque moment of a symbolic and paradoxical rebuke to power. At once it glorifies revolutionary action’s selfless sacrifice and condemns it to the flames. It announces that violence begets violence, yet it does nothing to break that vicious cycle. It offers no solution but may serve as a timely reminder of that dire problem that dogs the progress of our civilization.
This is perhaps the real reason why we should remember Guy Fawkes and his dreadful fate. For, in this way, this surreal act of remembrance, this burnt offering at the altar of history, one of so very many, may shed its flickering light upon more sombre moments of remembrance to come.