Tomorrow is November 5. This is one of those statements that look simple but contain multiplicities of meaning. I asked friends on Facebook what they thought of the date and I was fascinated by how many ways there were of seeing it and how the events that will be celebrated tomorrow have changed over the years.
First, and the event that still continues for Australians is the Melbourne Cup, a rather big horse race. The Race that Stops the Nation this year is more The Race that Stops the Nation’s Heart. When I asked on Twitter if people would rather read about it or the other historical event celebrated tomorrow In Australia, more people chose the other.
If I were thinking about Melbourne Cup, it would be the first Tuesday in November. Instead, I’m thinking about 5 November. The days, then, don’t always collide.
I say ‘collide’ because of the controversies that surround the two. This year a large number of Australians are taking their public holiday (the State of Victoria gets a public holiday for the Cup) but are boycotting the race. Too many horses have been hurt and died.
And 5 November? It’s always been a bit of a collision. That’s the nature of the day. It’s never been a public holiday here. Of the two, Melbourne Cup is definitely more important. Sport above history is standard for Australia for the most part.
So what is this other festive occasion on 5 November? Why is it controversial? Why does its decay have almost nothing to do with controversies concerning its importance? Let me begin with a rhyme. This isn’t the classic version of the rhyme. It’s the version I proclaimed myself, as a child, when my father brought home fireworks. It’s the version most popular in Melbourne in the 1960s and early 70s.
“Please to remember the Fifth of November
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder and treason
Should ever be forgot.”
This rhyme is one of the reasons I became an historian. I wanted to know why we lit fireworks and disturbed the cats, and why some children in the neighbourhood destroyed letterboxes or ended in hospital from misuse of fireworks. I wanted to know what the rhyme meant.
When I learned a little more I wanted to know why we didn’t collect pennies for a guy or even make a guy and why we never, ever burned one. Why we called it bonfire night as much as cracker night and why we only had bonfires under very controlled circumstances where in the UK they had them, it seemed, everywhere. I wanted to know why a few children were not allowed to participate. There were festivals where I couldn’t participate and I found it curious that no-one would tell me why several other children had these restrictions and that no-one could explain why. Or would explain why.
It was one of those big cultural demarcation moments. I learned how we connected to the UK and how we didn’t.
For Australians of my age, this description could only refer to Guy Fawkes’ Night. I could have given a description of the historical event that led to the bonfires and fireworks. I didn’t because, in my youth, the festival was all about the crackers and firework parties in our back gardens.
It rejoiced in the death of a criminal called Guy Fawkes. The man was real. Fawkes himself was part of a Catholic conspiracy to get rid of the Protestant government. This is why some children weren’t permitted fireworks or fun. Guy Fawkes’ Day (or night, because everything happened after dusk) is strongly linked in some parts of the English-speaking world to Catholics being treated less than well. This wasn’t as bad in Australia as it was in, say, the UK, partly because Australians go very silent on the matter of prejudice and bigotry, so Catholics went very quiet and didn’t participate for the most part. It also may have been a bit more fun and a bit less historically-minded than its UK equivalent. We had no effigy to burn (though we did read about this practice in books) and every year we had to find out if bonfires were even possible. November here is when bushfire season begins, and fires outside were often banned. They still are.
Have you noticed how full of fudge my writing is tonight?
I could have written a nostalgic piece about a piece of history, a holiday that is fading fast. But it’s a difficult holiday. Catholics had to deal with it every year rather than enjoy it. Not all Catholics, but saying that is like saying “Not all Jews get picked on during Easter” – my Catholic neighbours across the fence never had fireworks and went silent every year when I was a child. A whole family had to see the whole neighbourhood go wild with fireworks that represented a history where they were the ones who hurt. Thinking of the Perkins made me eschew simple prose tonight. Thinking of them , in fact, made this piece very hard to write.
What else made the piece hard to write? The reason Guy Fawkes’ Night is almost dead now in Australia is because fireworks are mostly illegal. Too many children enjoyed putting crackers in letterboxes or facing rockets at their best friends before letting them off. Too many animals were scared and even hurt.
It’s very difficult to write about a favourite festival and admit what a good thing it is that it’s racing towards oblivion.
That was such an excellent pun and united the two events I won’t be spending much time on tomorrow. I shall leave it there. Except… if anyone wants to know more about what happened in 1606, let me know and I’ll do a blog post just for that. Not what happened in Australia. Not how hard it is to face Guy Fawkes’ Night directly and write about simply. I would tell you about what happened in 1606 and why, despite this race to oblivion, it’s still historically important.