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Bonfire Night explained

Twice over the past couple of weeks I’ve been asked by colleagues at work what November 5th is all about. Being from Russia and Australia, and relatively recent arrivals in this country, they were unfamiliar with the concept. Therefore, I dedicate this entry to them. This is Bonfire Night, explained for the benefit of everyone who isn’t British.

It all started with the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. She died childless, and so the throne went to her distant relative, James VI of Scotland. Importantly, James’ mother had been Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic monarch who had been executed (reluctantly) by the Protestant Elizabeth. The Catholic population of Britain therefore assumed that with James on the throne, they could expect a bit more tolerance. Unfortunately, it was not to be – James had been raised Protestant, like many Scottish nobles at the time. Additionally, the government of England was largely unchanged from Elizabeth’s reign, and James had little interest in domestic policy.


The Gunpowder Plotters. Bates tries not to laugh at Winter's hilarious outfit.

A group of wealthy Catholics, led by Robert Catesby, essentially said “Buggre thys for an Game of Soldiers,” and decided to take drastic action. They intended to bomb the opening of Parliament in 1605. This would take out the King, most of the nobility and the senior bishops of the Church of England. This in turn, the conspirators hoped, would allow them to rise up and take control, installing a Catholic monarch (James’ daughter Elizabeth, who was 9 at the time and probably couldn’t give a damn either way).

Guy Fawkes, the best-remembered of the plotters, was a former soldier and explosives expert, and therefore central to the plan. The plotters had, by chance, found a house with a cellar directly under the House of Lords. Parliament was due to open on November 5th, and Fawkes would be there to set th explosion off. There were 36 barrels of gunpowder, enough to completely destroy the Palace of Westminster and devastate the surrounding area.

Unfortunately, the plotters were betrayed, possibly by one of their own number. Lord Monteagle, a Member of Parliament, received an anonymous letter which essentially said, “Yoe Dude, ye may wish to staye awaye from the Openynge of Parliament, be-cause I have heard that Somethyng Bigge is going downe.” He, fairly predictably, had this note read out and a search was arranged. Fawkes was duly captured and arrested, initially using a pseudonym of “John Johnson” and claiming to be a lone nut.

Under torture – which even in those days was viewed as an extreme and distasteful measure – Fawkes confessed all. The plotters were rounded up and then hanged, drawn and quartered. This was followed by an anti-Catholic backlash and, from 1606 onwards, it was officially made the custom to celebrate the failure of the plot and the deliverance of His Majesty. The tradition of a Halloween bonfire was turned into a November 5th bonfire.

There’s some debate over whether the plot would have succeeded. Many historians take the view that, without foreign support, the planned uprising could never have gone ahead. There’s even the persistent suggestion that the whole thing was a conspiracy by the anti-Catholic minister Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. However, as with most conspiracy theories, there’s a drastic shortage of actual evidence.

These days the occasion is still celebrated, although frankly it’s more an excuse to let off fireworks than a commemoration of King James’ survival. An effigy of Guy Fawkes – known simply as the guy – is burnt on a bonfire, sparklers are distributed to children and baked potatoes are usually involved. Also mulled wine, if you’re lucky.

vendettaInterestingly, Fawkes’ cultural status has changed in recent years, largely due to Britain’s succession of crappy governments. He’s gone from a symbol of treachery to a symbol of dissent. There’s a popular political blogger named Guido Fawkes (Guy’s name when fighting in Spain). The ambiguous hero of V for Vendetta takes his likeness from Fawkes. In turn, the online anti-organisation Anonymous, best known for their attacks on the Church of Scientology, wear V masks to protests.



On a more mundane note, have you ever referred to someone as a “guy?” You’ve got Fawkes to thank for that, too. A guy, in the sense of an effigy of Fawkes, was a ragged and often strangely-dressed dummy. In the nineteenth century, this came to be used as a term for a ragged or strangely-dressed man, and later became slang for any chap you might see.

Enjoy Bonfire Night, kids. Here’s hoping it’s a good one.

Your swell pal,



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Filed under Crime, Current events, History, London, Notable Londoners, Politics, Stuart London, Westminster

Ebenezer Scrooge versus Sweeney Todd versus Big Ben

christmas-carol-poster-2You may have seen these posters around the place. Yes, they’ve made yet another version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which I swear must be the most filmed book in the  entire world ever. This version, as you can see, stars Jim Carrey in 3D motion-capture glory (I hear he switched the lights on in Oxford Circus last night, good for him). He also appears to be getting some sort of sexual pleasure from that bollard there. No doubt this will be explained in the film itself. I won’t be going to see it, having already seen the versions starring Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine, Bill Murray, Ross Kemp and Scrooge McDuck.

But I’m wandering from the point I started with, which is that the British posters feature, very prominently, the sight of Big Ben under construction. I have my own theory as to why this is, quite apart from the fact that Big Ben is shorthand for “You Are In London.” You may recall the Tim Burton-directed Sweeney Todd a couple of years ago. The publicity campaign for this ran into a little trouble over this image:


If you take a look to Mr Depp’s right, you’ll see Big Ben emerging from the fog of Olde Londone Towne. This caused consternation among certain historically-minded folk, who pointed out that Big Ben (or, if you want to be pedantic, the Clock Tower) wasn’t built until 1859, and the story of Sweeney Todd is set at some point in the 1840s. The poster was pulled. The scene in which Todd sails under the 1894-built Tower Bridge was left in, which strikes me as a far greater anachronism (the filmmakers’ excuse was that it is depicted as still being under construction, builders at the time apparently being shite). One might also point out that the ship that brings him in would have docked at Rotherhithe rather than into the heinously busy Pool of London. One might further point out that Tim Burton’s version of London in Sweeney Todd is a Disneyfied vision of 19th century Olde Englande marketed towards weekend Goths, and actual historical accuracy might freak them out. Frankly we’re lucky Sherlock Holmes didn’t step in to save the day.

I actually quite liked the film, I should point out.

So anyway, yes. That, in my characteristic rambling style, is why I think the London version of the posters for Yet Another Christmas Carol make a scaffolding-clad Big Ben bigger than the main character – to show that they’ve actually done a bit of research unlike some we could mention. Of course, if you want my opinion, and you’re going to get it whether you want it or not, I think these people could save themselves a lot of trouble if they just went with St Paul’s Cathedral as the London landmark. It’s a better symbol for London than Big Ben, which isn’t even in the goddamn City.

Further Reading

https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/well-at-least-he-didnt-die-poor/ – The real-life historical figure that was the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge.

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Filed under 19th century, Buildings and architecture, Current events, Film and TV, Geography, History, Literature, London, Notable Londoners, Westminster