Penny for the Guy

As Britain marks Guy Fawkes Day, a Nahariya ex-pat fondly remembers the bonfires and the fireworks.

November 1, 2006 10:10
4 minute read.
guy fawkes 88

guy fawkes 88. (photo credit: )

As November advances, bringing in England hints of winter, occasional cold winds, grey skies and leafless trees, wary citizens remind themselves that there is still some furniture to be taken in from the garden or the veranda. This is not only a precaution against winter damage - canvas getting soaked as soon as the rains set in or snow causing rust and deterioration in hinges and creases. For any householder, it would be a precaution against all these items vanishing if left unguarded. They fall into the hands of small boys and their older brothers - who should know better - as fuel for the annual bonfire on November 5. It is collected with as much enthusiasm and ruthlessness as that which might be fuel for a beach bonfire on Lag Ba'Omer, and there is a remarkable resemblance between these urchin collectors half a world away. But those in Britain have an advantage over their contemporaries. They have a focal point and a visible target - a figure. Each group of youngsters is trundling a conveyance: an old baby carriage with one wheel missing so that it lurches awkwardly. Or a wheelbarrow "borrowed" from some unsuspecting gardener with clumps of grass and weeds still visible at the edges. Or somebody's grandpa will have, for a few days, to rely on his stick rather than his wheelchair. Each vehicle contains a passenger, each effigy a triumph of ingenuity over scarcities. These are the "Guys." Some elegant in whatever cast-off clothing that hopefully will not be missed. One with an elegant bowler hat and spats. One with an unmistakable kitchen apron tied round its middle, one in a rather elegant tweed jacket. All shown off and pointed out as worthy recipients of charitable contributions "Penny for the Guy, Miss." A penny is no longer legal currency in England. The bottom half of a large suitcase, wobbling on a shaky frame with wheels, held a dignified figure, his head covered in a jaunty woolen cap with a pompom and what looked like a kitchen apron tied round his waist holding him steady. ‚ "Who is this?" I inquired. "It's Guy Fawkes, Miss. We're taking him to the bonfire. We're having baked potatoes." He is nudged into silence. The potatoes may not have been given freely. Guy Fawkes, I remembered from school history lessons, had converted to Catholicism in an era, 1663, when most of Britain had followed their monarch in his defiance of the pope and his self-proclaimed leadership of the Church of England. His name was familiar to every child who had grown up in the British school system. Though my Jewish heritage had not inclined me to one side or the other, I had in my time helped to clothe a "guy" and joined in the bonfire celebrations with my peers. It had nothing really to do with me. But what had it to do with these children with lilting voices whose forebears were even further from this religious controversy than mine were? Guy Fawkes had been a soldier and was familiar with explosives. He was a convert to Catholicism and, like many converts, more fervent in his faith than many who had been born into it. He joined with a small group of like-minded enthusiasts in a plan to rid England of its Protestant monarch, proclaimed by his predecessor King Henry VIII to be the head of the church. The conspirators, with great good luck, found an unused basement under the House of Commons and rented it. Unnoticed, they carried in 16 barrels of gunpowder and planned an explosion that would eliminate King James as he was addressing for the first time both houses of parliament, even though they knew that there would be some Catholics in the assembly. The first recorded suicide bombers. However, one of their numbers, in a fit of conscience, sent a letter of warning and the whole group were rounded up, tried and executed. What is celebrated is not, as in many countries, a successful revolution but one that failed, and Guy Fawkes remains a kind of counter-hero. "So what did he do, this Guy Fawkes?" I persist, still not having got my shilling's worth. There was puzzlement in the young faces turning to me. "He tried to blow up the king," ventures one. "No," came a contradiction. "Not the king. He wanted to blow up Westminster Abbey." They moved off, still arguing. I tried again with a better dressed "Guy" and a more elegant carriage: Local voices, bigger boys, jeans, trainers and T-shirts. "It's Guy Fawkes, Miss. He tried to blow up Buckingham Palace." "Recently?" I inquire. "Nah, ages ago. Before the First World War, even." "Any particular reason?" I ask. "I think he was a Scotsman," one ventures. They push off. "Where are you taking this tree?" I ask a trio of panting, sweating youngsters dragging what looks like half a forest past my house. "Going to the beach, to the bonfire. It's Lag Ba'Omer." "What's that exactly?" I ask, having primed myself previously. "It's counting the omer. You know, the harvest." "But why the bonfire?" "There was a fight in the middle and they had to light bonfires to let other people know. They had no phones," he adds kindly. "You can get married on that day." You learn something every day.

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