Celebration ... commemoration
Guy Fawkes night and Remembrance Sunday ... BILL KIRKMAN on a time for reflection.
A modern interpretation of Guy Fawkes night ...
LOUD explosions from all sides of the village would normally be a cause of great concern. Britain, fortunately for us who live here, is generally quiet and peaceful, and the sound of guns and bomb fire is rare indeed.
During the past week we have heard many loud explosions, and although pet cats and dogs have reacted nervously, their human owners have remained blithely unconcerned. Indeed, on one evening, in Cambridge, I joined an eager crowd, many of them young children with their parents, hurrying from the city centre to a public park near the river, for a dazzling display of explosions which we all enjoyed with audible appreciation.
It was Bonfire Night, or more accurately Guy Fawkes Night, always a wonderful excuse to pander to the enjoyment which most people take from fireworks. When our children were young, we regularly arranged a firework party and bonfire for them and their friends a modest domestic occasion. The Cambridge display which I attended was in a different league, a public event, provided by the local authority and a group of commercial sponsors.
... heroic acts ... Remembrance Sunday.
Everyone knows about Guy Fawkes Night as a notable feature of the year's calendar of entertainment. Very few, I suspect, know why it happens. In my youth, we did have some sense of it. We at least knew the traditional rhyme associated with it:
Please to remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot;
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Even so, I doubt if many of us would have been able to set out with certainty what the gunpowder plot was about and if we had, we would have found the celebration politically incorrect (though we would not have known the phrase). In fact, the plot was an attempt, on November 5, 1605, by a group of Catholic conspirators to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Guy Fawkes, born a Protestant, became a Catholic and was one of the conspirators. He was betrayed and hanged.
Several hundred years later bonfire night does not of course have even distant overtones of Catholic conspiracy, or of anti-parliamentary feeling. It is simply a good excuse for a celebration on the fifth of November by those who like fireworks.
Four days after bonfire night I took part, with thousands of people all round the country, in another commemoration Remembrance Sunday. It is an occasion which takes place every year to remember those who died in the two world wars. Traditionally, someone reads aloud the names which appear on war memorials in every town and village. In our village, as in all, the list for the First World War is much longer than for the second; it was, each year reminds us, an appalling slaughter, which affected families all around the world, not just in Europe.
Unlike bonfire night, the original purpose of Remembrance Sunday does still hold true, and not just for people who fought in, or (as in the case of my generation) lived through the 1939-45 war. The day is an occasion for reflection on the violent death that accompanies war, and for recalling that wars, and deaths of soldiers and civilians, still continue though often, as in Iraq, without the sense of common purpose that existed in Britain when faced with the threat of Nazi domination.
Each year on Remembrance Sunday the number of people who were soldiers during the world conflicts, even that of 1939-45, diminishes. In our village this year there were only four present at the remembrance service. For the foreseeable future, however, I expect that the commemoration will continue; the historical reason for it is quite deeply ingrained in the national memory. I certainly do not expect that it will go the way of bonfire night, and become simply an excuse for a celebration. Quite how that happened, I do not know, but clearly at quite an early stage the significance of the celebration was lost in the celebration itself.
Bonfire night began as the commemoration of a violent episode, but it has not traditionally carried overtones of violence. There are signs that that may be changing. In recent years there have been many cases of young thugs throwing fireworks and launching rockets in the street, causing damage and putting lives at risk. The government is planning legislation to make it illegal for people below the age of 18 to carry fireworks in public places.
It is a rather sad case of violence coming full circle.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Send this article to Friends by