Over the years it has become a kind of custom for me to mark the 5th of November with a post. For us here in the UK this is Guy Fawkes Night, also known as Bonfire Night, when we celebrate the failure of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Today, there might be fewer celebrations if someone tried it, given the rubbish that we have to endure from it! Initially these were just narrative pieces but over time I took to including songs with ‘fire’ in their title. The range has been fairly wide, but I thought for this year it might be nice to revisit the first time that I did it this way. The post still contains a bit of the history, but also some tunes – three, in fact – plus the clip that I have now included on a regular basis from the excellent Horrible Histories tv show. I first aired this one in 2017, as part of my now just about defunct #SaturdaySongs series. Well, today is Saturday, so that seems right! This is a slightly edited version:
#SATURDAYSONGS #12 – SONGS FOR BONFIRE NIGHT
When I brought back this #SaturdaySongs series I said I would be doing it a little differently. So today, instead of a song with meaning from somewhere in my life I’m doing a themed set for Bonfire Night, aka Guy Fawkes Night.
Earlier this week we ‘celebrated’ Hallowe’en. As I said then, this is largely imported to these shores from the US, in its current form, although parts of the British Isles do have a tradition going back many hundreds of years – the whole thing derives from the pagan festival of Samhain, if you want to follow it up. Our real celebration for this week comes tonight, when we mark what is known as Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, if you prefer. This is still a big night in the UK – understanding of it is perhaps declining, but it marks a momentous event in British history. Bonfires will be lit all over the country, and thousands will attend to watch them and the accompanying firework displays. Why?
As the majority of readers here are based outside the UK it would be presumptuous of me to assume that you would know why we do this. Briefly, on 5th November 1605 a man called Guy Fawkes was discovered in the vaults of the House of Lords guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder. He was there to blow the place up during the State Opening of the English Parliament, as part of a plot by Catholics to murder the King – James I of England and VI of Scotland – and install his 9 year old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, as a Catholic monarch. The details of this are well documented so I won’t bore you with them here, but if you want to know more there is a good article in Wikipedia which draws on a number of authoritative sources to give a full description of the plot and its aftermath, which resulted in trials for those who had not been killed as they tried to make their escape, and subsequent executions by the barbaric method of hanging, drawing and quartering. Perhaps ironically Guy Fawkes managed to escape this end – weakened by having been tortured during the investigation into the plot he jumped from the gallows and broke his neck. This all sounds very gory to me. To illustrate that, an admission: the BBC has been running a dramatisation of these events, which finishes tonight – I recorded the first episode but when I read how people were complaining about its graphic detail I went into full wuss mode and deleted it, unwatched!
In the following years the foiling of this plot was celebrated on its anniversary by the ringing of church bells, special sermons and the lighting of bonfires, and it became a part of traditional British culture as a result. This tradition included the burning of an effigy of Guy Fawkes on top of the bonfire, although in recent times there have been occasions when masks of modern political figures have been put on the guy – we may love our democracy but it doesn’t stop us hating the politicians! When I was growing up it was commonplace to see groups of children on the streets with their guys, quite often being transported in their dads’ wheelbarrow, asking for a ‘Penny for the guy, mister’ but this is seen much less nowadays. In our current Health and Safety conscious era I guess they are most likely to be arrested for begging!
I thought I’d mark the event with a few songs, none of which has anything to do with Guy Fawkes but all of which have the word ‘fire’ in their title. I’ve really thought this through, haven’t I! First up, and one which has a place in my life as being one of the earliest songs (and bands) that introduced me to American rock music, is this:
See what I mean about there being no influence from Guy Fawkes? It’s still a great song though.
The events we are remembering tonight took place 417 years ago. But there are, sadly, echoes in modern day life: religion as the basis for differences and even violence; a threat to democracy from those who want another form of government and are prepared to go to illegal and destructive ends to attain it. Sound familiar? We don’t learn as much from history as we would like to think, do we? For a potted history lesson, we could all do a lot worse than listen to my second choice for today:
And when I say ‘all’ I (was) thinking in particular of a certain orange (now ex-)president who seemed determined to ignore any lessons he might have learned from history, assuming he has ever read about it. Sadly, he is far from alone in that.
My final ‘fire’ song just has to be this. Utterly bonkers, the archetypal one hit wonder, from 1968:
They don’t really make them like that anymore, do they? Somehow, though, Arthur Brown best fits the theme for tonight: he’s a kind of walking bonfire, really.
I’m sorry if I haven’t included your favourite fire song, but I didn’t want to overburden you (and as it’s my blog I can choose what I want 😂). Two other obvious candidates are Great Balls of Fire and Ring of Fire (nothing to do with curries). No doubt you can think of many more, all of which will share one common denominator: they are not about Guy Fawkes. There are a number of traditional folk songs and ballads going right back to the early 17th century but sadly, for some reason, none of these appears to have found their way onto YouTube – what were they thinking! There are also a few modern day efforts which mostly share the characteristics of being loud, tuneless and not good enough to meet the high quality standards I apply to this blog (ahem). So I’ve decided to end with a little history lesson instead:
If you’re out tonight, stay warm, stay safe, and enjoy yourself. And please remember that pets (and ageing bloggers) need to be looked after during the fireworks and explosions.