Penny for the old Guy

It was never clear to me, when I lived in England many years ago, what one was supposed to make of the 5th of November. The Gunpowder Plot was discovered on this date in 1605. It was a spirited, Catholic attempt at terrorism, the plan being to blow up King and Parliament together at the State Opening of the latter. It was pursued in an intelligent and practical way. The conspirators were able to rent cellar space beneath the House of Lords. Gradually it was filled with barrels of gunpowder. Unfortunately, for them, someone tipped off the authorities. Fawkes was found with his barrels, in flagrante delicto as it were; and so the plot unravelled. … Ah well.

They would all be there: not only His Majesty, but his whole Privy Council; with all the Lords — including the bishops of the Protestant church, and the top drawer of the Protestant aristocracy. Plus the membership of the House of Commons, if we are counting small change. Think of it!

A fine and brave soldier with much experience in the Low Countries, was our Guy Fawkes — or “Guido,” as he called himself. He had fought illustriously for the Spanish in what was ceasing to be the Spanish Netherlands. A dashing gentleman, of electric red hair, flowing beard, and magnificent moustache. Very tall. Dressed as a dandy, even on campaign. A man “pleasant of approach and cheerful of manner” — a convert, and an ornament to the Catholic cause. He was learned, too, and highly articulate; and did I mention fearless? But while he could talk a blue streak, he preferred the life of action.

With a dear old friend whom I should perhaps not name, I found myself discussing once a plan to overthrow the government. There were several of us reactionaries, drinking together, and whining about the political order. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention what country we were in, either. Suffice to say, one of our complaints was about the low level of military expenditure. Someone (perhaps it was I) joked that the only building in the country visibly secured was the Defence Ministry. Full not of soldiers but of wet bureaucrats.

“Now seriously, gentlemen,” the dear old friend proposed, at the end of a general belly laugh. “What will we need to perform a coup d’état?”

Solemnly he began taking notes.

Well, enough of that conversation. I am simply trying to imagine the moment when Fawkes, John Catesby, the Wintours, Percy, Keyes, Bates, Tresham, Digby and the lads — drinking the health not of the Protestant King but of his potentially Catholic nine-year-old daughter — switched from fantasy to planning. It was one of those great banana-peel moments, of which history is replete, and at which, from this distance, one has to giggle. Just think: had they succeeded, we would have had an Elizabeth II in the early seventeenth century, for at least a few weeks; and who knows what after that. With luck, we might never have had “the Whig view of history.”

The English, I found, back in the day, like the Japanese: another insular people. They are inscrutable. We think we might understand them because we speak a version of their language, but really, no one does. Not even themselves. But there are moments when one catches a glimpse into the soul of the nation that gave the world Parliamentary Democracy.

And they present themselves as cool and collected, as organized and understated, as imperturbable: the picture of sangfroid. The unpoetic legislators of common sense, and inventors of “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.” What an extraordinary Constitution they developed, over the course of many hundred years. There were moments when it was even working. But I’d swear the most joyous moment in their secular calendar is “Bonfire Night,” when they think how much they would themselves enjoy blowing it all up.

That, I believe, is the meaning of the 5th of November, in England. It is a moment of indulgence in the counter-factual; in the pleasure of tipping a table, long carefully set. It took centuries for them to damp down their inner Irish; and as I notice from London news today, it is still imperfectly suppressed.

Thirty-six barrels, if I am not mistaken. Enough to reduce the ancient warren about the Palace of Westminster to rubble. A memorable shoot-out at Holbeche House (in Staffordshire, I think), when the rest of the conspirators were run to ground. Survivors of that were in turn, of course, hanged drawn and quartered. (Fair cop, I suppose.) Except Fawkes himself, who managed to break his neck, instead, tumbling from the scaffold in a last, good old college try to escape the executioner’s ministrations.

Ah well.