Saturday, November 05, 2005


A couple of years ago there was a small burst of (rightful) outrage when some burghers of Lewes in East Sussex, a historic site of several waves of religious persecution, hit upon the vile idea that Guy Fawkes Night might be a good occasion to burn an effigy of a Romany camp. And this at a time when nasty propaganda against travellers and asylum seekers was being whipped up again in the media. What shocked me at the time was how few people took this seriously -- or recognised that the 5 November is a 'celebration' which readily lends itself to such malevolent purposes. So it was entirely appropriate for Justin Champion, Professor of Early Modern Ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London, to rehearse the ghastly 1605 saga in the Guardian on Friday ('The flames of hate'). This has produced a strong reaction from some correspondents ('No faith left in the Guy'), including an accusation of historical inaccuracy from one person apparently unfamiliar with the Act of Uniformity and the scale of anti-Catholic repression at the time of the gunpowder plot. Slightly dubious parallels with modern terrorism are also being drawn all round. Tomorrow's Observer, in timely fashion, reviews a clutch of relevant popular histories of the period. The contemporary point, it seems to me, is not to overdose on hindsight or to spoil a good bit of firework fun. But recognising the pain of the story we inherit, and determining not to repeat it by unveiling its uncomfortable echoes in later modern Europe, is surely a good thing. This is Champion's point, even if he has over-dramatized it. We should not avoid or sanitise the past, but reshape it in the present. Given the proximity of the not-so-glorious fifth to Diwali, a celebration of life and light over death and evil, maybe we could begin to do away with 'guys' and see in the festival and ritual a fresh blaze of humanitarian hope.

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