GUY FAWKES – a beginner’s guide

I know that the whole history of, and reasons for, the UK’s ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ a.k.a. ‘Bonfire Night’ is something of a mystery to most of you guys in America. This is despite it having taken place in 1606 and hence it being part of a lot ‘your’ history too! Please excuse such a generalisation, but without it you guys wouldn’t even be guys at all!

The bare bones are that November 5th is commemorated here as the night when Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were thwarted in their attempt to blow up the English parliament – with gunpowder!

Their reason?

They wanted to kill the Protestant King James and his cronies and replace him with the Princess Elizabeth – as a Catholic queen.

Every year, certainly when I grew up, Fawkes’s capture was celebrated by a big bonfire built by the children of your street (could start that in summer!), loads of fireworks, food provided by families and of course, the burning of the guy! Other people might celebrate with the family in their own back gardens.

The guy was an effigy of the Mr Fawkes made from tatty old clothes stuffed with newspaper and conkers (they go bang); plus a bought cardboard mask supposedly in the style of Mr Fawkes. Each year one would (if allowed) push, carry or ‘guy’ the effigy around asking for a ‘Penny for the Guy!’ The money to then be spent on fireworks and/or sweets (NOTE – not candy!).

This ‘Guy’ entered into literature in books such as Tom Brown at Oxford, which described someone as ‘such an old guy in his dress’. While in 1893 in ‘The Swell’s Night Guide’ they excused themselves by saying: ‘I can’t tonight, for I am going to be seduced by a rich old Guy’. This became incorporated into US English as ‘Wise Guys’ and ‘Fall Guys’, until it was just ‘you guys!’

The importance of this very social (and potentially dangerous) family event has rather diminished in recent years in favour of public displays, but this depends on your location. Where I live in the south of England there is a proud tradition of Bonfire Boys (and Girls). Many villages hold a torch-lit procession through their streets with marching and drumming bonfire boys (and girls) from different villages in different fancy dress outfits. This is spread out over most of November! Each night culminated in Bonfires and fireworks and rather a lot of drinking (sadly not this year). It’s a truly splendid sight and sound: loads of drums! It’s slightly mad and it’s not state controlled!

Photo courtesy of Adrian Spinks photography

Why is this still going on?

Well, perhaps strangely, the terrorist Guy Fawkes has become something of an anarchist hero. The fact that he wanted to blow up one government to replace it by another has largely been forgotten. Every generation sees Guy Fawkes slightly differently you see. Each year we burn a different politician on our bonfire – plenty to chose from.

I have recently written the ‘book’ and some of the lyrics for a new musical about Guy Fawkes, with music by the far too talented Ben Durkin. It is actually based on a Victorian novel about the man by William Ainsworth – a Bestseller at the time! To the Victorians, Fawkes was something of a romantic figure and the novel (and the theatre show hopefully) has many gothic elements beloved by audiences of that time – spirits, alchemy and magic, and explosions of course!

And so Fawkes continues still. Those anarchist masks you see at demos, they are Guy Fawkes masks adapted from the wonderful ‘V for Vendetta’ graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, which imagined a new ‘Guy Fawkes’ figure and a different totalitarian state. Guy Fawkes just won’t lie down!

So, you ‘guys’ over there in the USA – and everywhere else – ‘Remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.’

Penny for the guy, mister?

Check out the amazon Susie Dent’s book ‘Word Perfect’ for more about ‘guys’ and all sorts of other fascinating words. You can read more about the exciting new musical and hear song samples at our website.