Monday, November 05, 2007

Gunpowder, Treason and Cultural Identity

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot...

As festivals go this one has got to be my favourite and the one I miss the most. To me it was the marker that the days were becoming colder and darker. I loved being all bundled up in my scarf and duffle coat and standing before that immense roaring orange monster, whose flames reached high into the sky, crackling and lunging upward. I loved the sparklers (although if truth be told, they scared me a little), and most of all I loved the fireworks. The whees and whizzes followed by a dandelion puff of colour that meandered back to the ground losing its shine. Even today I still love anything that involves fireworks, but it’s still not as special as Guy Fawkes Night.

The build up to Guy Fawkes was special too. Groups of shaven headed boys patrolling around town demanding: ‘Penny for the Guy’. And it always seemed to me, those who shouted loudest were the ones with the most poorly put together Guy. What the effigy lacked in stuffing was made up for in volume.

And then Guy Fawkes Night is one of the few things that is celebrated over the year that is curiously British. Maybe it’s my rebellious nature that loves the thought of something that is based in conspiracy and a fight for religious freedom. Maybe it’s the bonfire and fireworks. Maybe it’s jacket potatoes. Whatever it is Guido and the motley crew he worked for made an impression on me that has stuck. It has become part of my personal cultural identity.

Until I left England I never really thought of myself in terms of nationality, but since leaving I’ve realised that it is actually a large part of who I am. In general I don’t miss England, but on the occasions when I did, I missed being able to communicate easily. Sometimes I miss the sense of humour and feel frustrated when what I have said is misinterpreted, but I know that an English person would understand me. I miss the strong culture of music. I miss a good curry on a Friday night. I miss the quirky TV dramas that explored all kinds of themes and hate the Hugh Grant/Mr Bean factory of comedy that is exported.

I sometimes get frustrated when people ask me what nationality I am and then ask me where I was born. Sometimes it’s just great to open my mouth and for someone to say: Oh you’re a Londoner and straight away there is a shared understanding.

It’s challenging and exciting to live outside my culture and in some ways I feel I understand it more now that I am outside of it. I am more able to criticise and be open-minded, to take the aspects I value and leave those I do not. I suppose I wouldn’t change anything; although it would be nice for my face to be licked by the heat of a bonfire tonight and for me to stare up open-mouthed at the fireworks.


Anonymous said...

Guy Fawkes Night. Sounds like something I'd like to experience.

Cath J said...

… to say nothing of the panic induced by getting your mouth jammed stuck on that piece of treacle toffee you knew was too big to start with! Do you know the kind I mean, V? It used to come in a foil tray and you needed a hammer to break it up.

For me, bonfire night is all about the smell. Is there anything else like it? Magical.

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

I used to love Guy Fawkes as a kid - the fireworks, the sparklers, the excitement. I remember on year when my parents were away and my grandfather, in an effort to make up for being thoroughly rotten, went overboard with the amount of big bangs, rockets, catherine wheels, sparklers and all sorts of other bangy sparkly things. Now Guy Fawkes night has almost ceased to be here - the meaning has been forgotten and instead it has become associated with the most terrible animal cruelty. Last night if I heard three bangs it was a lot. Admittedly there are now designated fireworks areas and I don't live close to any but as kids we used to set them off in the street provided the area was clear.
And let's not get me started on issues of nationality and where one belongs ;-)

Shameless said...

Yes, I also have wonderful memories of Guy Fawkes night back in NZ. I had a sparkler stuck in a desert tonight in one of Lyon's best-known restaurants. That's the French Guy Fawkes for you! :-)

Jon M said...

Love guy fawkes night, always have always will. I must admit I admire anyone who lives 'out of their culture' so to speak. I would find it so hard (but then I am a lazy Brit!) :-)

apprentice said...

Nice piece V. I loved Guy Fawkes Night as a child, and when I had a small child. Cath is right, it's the smell of the cordite and the bonfire that makes it special.

I heard a historian say that if it had gone off the bomb would have been the 9/11 of its day, it would have wiped out the monarch, his heir, Parliament, the court, church leaders and a huge chunk of London.

Fawkes' end was horrific, so maybe it's as well we don't know too much about the origins of the night.

What I hate is how it now spans almost a week of whizz bangs, that almost merge ino the New Year fireworks. My poor dog has to get tranqs from the vet.

It's hard to live outside your own culture, you lose a shorthand that you're hardly aare of at home - but it also gives you a great sense of perspective.

I couldn't stay away for good though, exile must be so hard for so many folks, now and throughout history, the smells, the food, the landscape, the loved ones, the humour.

Verilion said...

Jason, it really is cool.
I do Cath, but I wasn't allowed many sweets as a kid and the treacle toffee was a definite no-no! Although a mountain of candyfloss that got EVERYWHERE was allowed! And yep the smell is fantastic and it lingers long after as it is generally so cold.
Hi Vanilla, one of my colleagues was saying that bonfires are banned in England now and the rest of us were getting all indignant (not one of us having lived in the UK in the last 10 years!) And the issue of nationality and belonging is so interesting though.
Well Seamus that's more action then I saw in Paris.
Hi Jon, it's not that admirable honestly. It's kind of a form of escapism.
The history is fascinating isn't it Apprentice. I had great fun doing a little bit of research about this. Some historians suggested that the plot had been discovered earlier but they left it until the 4th for political impact.
And you do lose stuff living outside your own culture but then you gain so much as well. I can't imagine never visiting the UK again, but at the same time I can't imagine living there again.


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