Remember, remember the 5th of November. More remembering today. Just of a very different kind. Not so much a London thing as an English thing. And wow do the English have some crazy customs and traditions. Today being perhaps the most baffling of all, to a foreigner. For today is Guy Fawkes Night, or more recently Bonfire Night. And what happens on this evening?, you ask. Well, an enormous bonfire is built and lit, an effigy of “Guy” is made from old clothes and appropriately flammable materials and tossed on the bonfire. Then follows a fireworks display. Fun for the whole family.
Wait, wait, wait, I hear you, the bemused outsider (BO) calling, you make a “Guy” and burn him???
London Passion (LP): Yes.
BO: How….unusual. Why?
LP: Well (the quick & simple version) because back in the year 1605 a Catholic by the name of Guy Fawkes thought it an excellent idea to try and blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill (Protestant) king James I. His plot failed as he was ratted out, possibly by his co-conspirators. Mr. Fawkes was captured, tortured and then hanged, drawn and quartered (pretty awful). The others involved were executed in St. Paul’s churchyard. Most likely, Guy was only the fall guy (ha ha ha) not the brains behind the operation, and like all good historical yarns, this one has more sub plots and conspiracy theories than you can wave a sparkler at. Regardless, this near miss is marked each and every year in the above described manner.
BO: And this is a celebrated holiday?
LP: Yes. A tradition most revered. I expect all of my English friends to fill the comment box with tales of ages past when they used dear grandfather’s clothes to make their own Guy and wheeled him round the streets receiving coins from neighbours for their troubles.
BO: (stunned silence)
LP: Bonfire Nights have become a big business for local governments. They spend the calendar year planning the event. In my area, the local private schools get together and put on their own display on the Friday closest to the 5th. I am in charge of selling tickets. I can’t believe drug dealers have a more rabid and desperate clientele than me.
Tonight I will attending a friends lavish Bonfire Night party…South of the Border has nothing on the fireworks display our local Mr. C puts together. Drinks will be served, children will be narrowly rescued from flames and everyone will have a very jolly time.
Another amusing custom is that of bringing grapes to someone in hospital. Magazines, yes I can see the point. A fruit that needs to be washed, not so much. I have no idea where this practise comes from. I hope someone will tell me. The other week I found this fantastic bit of sculpture on the railings of St. Guy’s Hospital in London. The poor man has received so many bunches of grapes that his hospital room has been transformed into a vineyard. So clever. And so typically self-deprecating. And one more wonderful English custom: “the piss take,” or the national sport of mockery. There is almost nothing the English can’t laugh at, most of all themselves.
Oh London, you really do have it all: burning catholics, unnecessary grapes and the strength of character to know when something is ridiculous and love it anyway.