Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November,

Gunpowder Treason and Plot. 

I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot. 

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent 

To blow up King and Parliament.

Three-score barrels of powder below

To prove Old England's overthrow;

By God's Providence he was catch'd

With a dark lantern and burning match.

And what should we do with him? Burn him!

[Below: The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plotters, Henry Perronet Briggs, 1823]

The nursery rhyme above, or variants of it, has been part of British culture since the 17th century, as has the custom of Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night. On November 5, effigies of "The Guy" are burned in bonfires all over the UK. 

The idea of burning "The Guy" in effigy is reflected in the rhyme's last line: "And what should we do with him? Burn him!" On the night the actual plot was foiled, the government  ordered the lighting of bonfires to celebrate the King's (James I's) deliverance. It's not clear when or why burning the Guy first became a part of the celebration. At first, revelers burned effigies of the Pope. 

Burning "The Guy" eventually became a tradition in later years, though it's not clear why Fawkes was singled out. He was the explosives expert, but only one of fourteen conspirators led by Robert Catesby. They were all Roman Catholics whose goal was to destroy the Protestant ruling elite with one blow and restore Catholicism in Britain. 

[Below: A contemporary Dutch image of some of the Gunpowder Plotters. Fawkes is third from the right. He is named here as "Guido" Fawkes, the name he took when fighting for the Spanish.]

[Below, George Cruikshank's illustration of Fawkes from Harrison Ainsworth's novel, Guy Fawkes, 1840.]

In case you are wondering, the real Guy Fawkes was not burned to death. He and several co-conspirators were hanged, then cut down and drawn (disembowelled) while still alive, and finally quartered. This was the traditional punishment for treason, then an act against the King. Fawkes managed to avoid the worst part. He threw himself off the scaffold, breaking his neck. He was dead when they cut off his privates, removed his guts, and chopped his body in pieces. 

The reason for this horrific proceeding, other than sheer sadism, was to teach a political lesson. Various body parts were hung up about the kingdom to warn people with similar ideas of their possible fate. The other plotters were killed resisting arrest. 

In 1606, Parliament passed an act making November 5 a day of thanksgiving. The celebrations often led to attacks on Catholics. This was true in British America  as well into the 19th century. But with the influx of Catholic immigrants in the 19th century, Halloween gradually replaced Bonfire Night as an autumn celebration. 

In the UK the act establishing a day of thanks giving was repealed in 1859 out of concern for Catholic sensibilities. But by then the lighting of bonfires on November 5 had become a firmly embedded tradition in most British communities. 

Anti-Catholic feelings remained part of the tradition for some decades, but gradually Bonfire Night became more focused on general fun and a bit of mischief. During the late 19th century that effigies of the Guy generally replaced ones of the Pope on the bonfires. But Lewes, Sussex continues to burn an effigy of Pope Paul V, who was pope in 1605. 

[Below: Guy Fawkes Night at Windsor Castle, 1776]

In many communities, children made The Guy, who was then processed to the place of "execution." The children would cry out "Penny for the Guy!" I recall doing it myself in Scotland as a child. 

[Below: Procession of a Guy, 1864].

[Below: Children with their Guy, Chirk, Wrexham, Wales, 1954]

Today Bonfire Night is a purely secular social event accompanied by fireworks and enjoyed by people of all religions and none. Few observers are likely to know the religious and political origins of the tradition.  

In a strange turn of events, many people now view Fawkes as a counter-culture hero for attacking the Establishment. Protestors often wear Guy Fawkes masks. Those who romanticize Fawkes should be aware that had the 36 barrels (2500 tons) of gunpowder under Parliament been detonated it would have destroyed everything up to 500 meters from the center of the explosion. 

This year, 2020, things will not be normal (surprise!) Many, perhaps most, communities will not be holding Bonfire Night events due to Covid-19. Better luck next year, Guy! 


Thursday, 15 October 2020

Trumpelstiltskin: A Grim Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a poor stockbroker named Jack Hammer. He was poor because he was a terrible predictor of stock futures. Verging on bankruptcy, he decided to employ his most valuable asset: his beautiful and intelligent daughter. 

One day at a brokers' meeting, he bragged to everyone that his daughter’s investment predictions were amazingly accurate.
Most of the brokers laughed and ignored him, given his record of stock predictions. But one man there did not: the Chairman of the Brokers’ Association. He came over and grabbed Hammer by the lapels of his jacket. 

“I would like to put your daughter's ability to the test. Bring her to my mansion tomorrow." He winked. "I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to such a nice girl.”

Hammer hurried home, cursing himself. His daughter was smart and had marvellous boobs, but knew nothing about predicting stock futures. 

She was horrified at his news. “This is insane! What am I going to do?" she asked, polishing her nails. "I don't know anything about this stuff.” 

Her father tried to calm her. “Just do your best. The worst thing the Chairman will do is fire you. He loves firing people.” Hammer feared something worse but decided to keep that to himself.

When the girl arrived at the Chairman’s gilded mansion, a servant led her to a room. It contained a bed and a desk. Behind the desk sat the leering Chairman, a porky man with a weird orange cast to his face, as if he had washed it in Cheetos. He sported a very long red tie.

He pointed to a pile of papers on the desk. “Rank these 10 stock prospectuses from first to worst. You have until tomorrow morning. If you get it right, I'll keep you on. If you get it wrong, you'll be fired.” 

Relieved, the girl replied, “I know. My Dad told me that.” The Chairman laughed. “I guess he didn’t tell you that here fired means fried, barbecued.”

He went out and locked her in the room. She looked around the room. Another door led to a bathroom featuring a golden toilet. Returning to the desk, she picked up the first prospectus. It was written in a language only brokers and investment lawyers would understand, the better to fleece the sheeple. 

She threw it down and began to cry. Just then, the door opened, and a little man entered. He looked like a Keebler Elf, but much less cute and far more chubby. In fact, he looked like a Mini-Me of the Chairman, from his strange orange glow to his tiny hands. The small man doffed his red cap, and bowed. “Good evening, young lady. Why do you weep so?”

She stifled a sob, pointing to the pile of reports. “I’ve got to rank these prospectuses from worst to first, or the Chairman will roast me. And I don’t know anything about stocks.” 

“No worries, my dear. I can help you. I know more than anybody about everything. But what will you give me if I succeed in saving you from the Chairman’s barbecue?”

“I will let you kiss me,” the girl said with modest reluctance. The little man looked downcast. “Only first base? OK, it’s a start.” He went over to the pile of prospectuses and began looking through them. Within minutes he had arranged them in what he said was the correct order. He bowed and grinned. “I’ll be back for my reward tomorrow,” he said, and left.

The next morning at the crack of dawn, as the girl slept, the Chairman entered the room. He grabbed up the prospectuses wordlessly and left. About half an hour later, he returned, and woke the girl. He had a glint in his eye. “My dear, you’re a genius at this. An astonishing performance.”

“Can I go home now?” the girl asked. “Home? Not yet, my pretty. I have another test for you.” He led her into another room, filled with piles of prospectuses.  “Rank these in the correct order by morning. Only 100. Piece of cake for you, I bet.”

The Chairman left. The girl began to cry, and cry, and cry. Her tears had almost soaked the prospectuses when she felt a tug on her sleeve. The little man in the red cap dried her tears and kissed her. 

“Now, my precious, would you like some help with this task?”  She nodded. “What will be my reward?” “Second base,” she said, drying her tears. The little man finished the task in no time at all and left.

The next morning the result was the same. The Chairman praised her brilliance, but said he had another test for her. “A mere 1000 this time, my precious.” That night the little man came again, and collected his reward. The girl begged for his help and promised him third base.

All went well again, but as you can guess, the greedy Chairman insisted on another test: 10,000 prospectuses. If she succeeded, he said, he would make her his wife. 

“But you’re already married,” she said. He laughed. “No problemo, my dear. You can be my mistress until I get rid of her -- a few million for a divorce settlement will do the job. You know how these immigrant women are. And I'll deduct the pay-out from my taxes.”

Before the girl could reply, the Chairman left. She began to cry again, a veritable flood. The little man soon appeared and collected his third base reward. "I'll help you one last time," he said, "but only in return for a home run." The girl hesitated. After all, she valued her honour. She began to cry again. 

The little man stamped his foot impatiently. He took some pity on her. “OK, he said, I’ll do this task for you. After that you’ll have three chances to guess my name. If you fail, you must reward me with a home run.” The girl hesitated, thought about roasting on the Chairman’s grill, and agreed.

When the Chairman checked the girl’s results the next morning, he repeated his usual praise. “I’m off to file the divorce papers now," he said, and pecked her on the cheek. 

That night the little man returned as promised. He put his tiny hands on his rather broad hips. “Well, what is my name?” The girl went through every name she could think of, from Aaron to Zachariah. “Not my name,” the little man said each time, and left.

The next day the girl begged the Chairman’s permission to go out shopping, for lingerie. “Of course, my sweet, but you must come back, or I’ll roast your father." She headed straight for a local bookshop to get a book of names. You know, the kind prospective parents get.

While she was perusing one of these books, a handsome young clerk sauntered up and asked if he could help her. She could tell immediately that he was the empathetic type, because the next thing he said was, “I have a degree in the humanities.” 

She explained her difficulty. His face clouded in outrage. “Don’t worry. I have a cunning plan,” he said. He explained it to the girl, who smiled and nodded. When the little man returned that night, she read out every name in the book. “Not my name” he said to each and left.

The third night, the little man appeared again, wearing a triumphant, lusty grin. “This is your last chance. What’s my name?” The girl replied, “Barrington?” The little man laughed. “Not my name.” The girl smiled. “Well, how about Trumpelstiltskin?” 

The little man's orange face turned red with anger. He stomped up and down. “You cheated, you harlot. How did you find out? The devil must have told you, or Nancy Pelosi.” At this point, a closet door opened with a loud creak.

The handsome young man stepped into the room, holding a gun. “I’ve been on to you for some time, you disgusting piece of slime. I may work at the bookstore, but that’s a clever disguise. I’m actually Dick Spacy, a private dick. I was hired by some of your previous victims. When this young lady told me her story, I knew I had you. One of my assistants followed you yesterday. He heard you singing that silly song about baking and brewing, and rejoicing that no one knew your name. But you made a fatal mistake. You foolishly revealed your name at the end of the song. By the way, that song won’t make the Top 40.”

While the young man expounded on his brilliance, he failed to notice that Trumpelstiltskin had moved closer to the young girl. With a lightning movement, Mr. T grabbed her left arm and pulled her in front of him, so that her posterior faced the young man. An astute move. It left Dick staring helplessly at that dazzling part of her anatomy. But the little fellow forgot about her other arm. The girl raised it above his head. It was holding a hammer. With amazing force, she brought it down on his skull. It cracked open like a poorly made knockoff Faberge egg. He dropped into a pool of blood.

As Dick and the girl checked to see that Trumpelstiltskin was down for good, the room door opened, revealing the portly frame of the Chairman. He looked at the body on the floor. “Villains! You have killed the second greatest genius in human history! Next to me, of course.”

“But he was using you to get his way with this girl,” Dick said.  

“Balderdash! We were working together on this caper. We arranged this whole thing. I didn’t give a junk bond about her predictive skill, which was non-existent. I was after something else." He pointed to the corpse. "So was he. Poor fellow. He should’ve stuck to call girls."

“And you dare call us villains!” Dick said. He stepped forward to grab the Chairman by the throat. But he slipped on the blood on the floor and stumbled to his knees. The Chairman grabbed a poker from the fireplace and raised it to hit Dick. As he did so, a hammer whistled through the air, followed by a loud crack. The Chairman fell forward, noiselessly, landing on Mr. T.

Dick got up, fixed his hair, and hugged the girl. “Mission accomplished. I saved you from these villains, as I promised.” He pointed toward the bed. “Now it’s time for my reward.” As he moved toward the bed, the hammer came up and down again. Dick crumpled and fell to the floor.

The girl surveyed the bloody scene with more satisfaction than the circumstances called for. She turned towards the audience.* “I know you’ve been dying to know my name. I'm not called Armanda Hammer for nothing."    

*NB. I forgot to mention that this was a play. 



Tuesday, 6 October 2020

My New-Found Love of Nature

"In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks." John Muir

As long as I can remember, I have been interested in the natural world. I always loved wandering about in the woods, hills, meadows, marshes. In my youth. years in the Scouts, vacations in northern Wisconsin, walks through the Forest Preserves of Chicago, all nurtured that feeling. 

When I went off to university, I decided to pursue a major in biology. My aim was vague: working in wildlife or forest management. Ultimately, it didn't matter. I ended up majoring in history. Eventually, I got a PhD and ended up a history professor. 

Over the years, new environments fascinated me: Appalachia, the Southern Lowcountry, Maine, the American West, Canada's Boundary Waters, Alaskan glaciers. Travels in Europe and Turkey reinforced my interests. (Below: Grouse and Salmon on Spawning Trek, Alaska)

But perhaps nothing in my life has made me appreciate nature more than two recent events: The climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. These have awakened me as never before to the ways in which humans are endangering all living things on this planet. Both are related to human interactions with the natural environment. 

The pollution of the air and water, the destruction of natural habitats, the consumption of exotic wildlife: all these and more contribute to the present crises and the rapid extinction of animal and plant species. We are losing things that can never be replaced and reducing the biodiversity that is part of healthy ecosystems.  (Sea otters, near Seward. Alaska)

The coronavirus pandemic and the economic downturn it has in some ways distracted attention from these environmental crises. People say we have to focus on the immediate health and economic dangers. 

But Covid-19 has also heightened awareness of the inter-relationship of our health and that of the earth. Most obviously, because the virus may have begun to infect people in the vicinity of a wet market in Wuhan, China, where live wild animals are sold for human consumption. 

This scenario is by no means established, but the pandemic has highlighted the potential dangers of wet markets to health and biodiversity. Some animals sold in such markets, such as the pangolin, are endangered, although it is illegal to trade in them. Another, bats, are considered the most likely original source of the virus. The 2002 SARS outbreak originated in horseshoe bats and spread to civets. In that case wet markets were also implicated.

The pandemic has also focused attention on habitat destruction as a source of disease. As animal habitats shrink with deforestation and the draining of wetlands, they move into areas with dense human populations. And as human populations grow, they too move, encroaching on animal habitats. (Image: Urban fox, Carshalton, London)

One effect of these movements is that humans come into increasing contact with animals who could infect them with dangerous microbes. The reverse is also true. Humans could transmit deadly diseases to the animals.

The pandemic has also helped focus attention on the environmental crisis, by forcing many of us to self-isolate. For several weeks in the spring, I hardly went outside. Like many of us, I spent a lot of time watching TV. I watched a lot of nature programs, which often focused on the environmental and extinction crises. Thank you in particular to Sir David Attenborough and his crew.

When I began to venture outside, I headed into nature. I'm fortunate to live next to an ecology center and close to several parks and nature trails. I had enjoyed walking in these places before, but I now approached them with a new appreciation. 

I walked more slowly, stopping and observing more. I remembered a saying of John Muir: "I don't like the word [hike] or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains - not hike!"'

I saw things I'd never seen before. I learned the names of birds, insects, trees, flowers, and shrubs I never knew before. I began to see beauty I had ignored or acknowledged only in passing before. Most importantly, I realized what losing all this would mean, not only aesthetically, but for our very survival. (Image: Hedge Spider, Wandle Trail; Wildflower, Banstead Woods, Chipstead, Surrey)

When will we go back to normal? people ask. For our sake as well as that of nature, we must never go back to "normal." That is the road to perdition. (Fawn, Richmond Park, Southwest London)