It’s a long time till November 5, with all its bonfires and fireworks and historical half-memory, so obviously today I’m going to write about Guy Fawkes.
There is actually a good reason for this – on this day in 1606, Fawkes was executed for his role in the Gunpowder Plot and, as a result, became more than just a terrorist/freedom-fighter – he became a symbol. This may overstate his importance to history – he wasn’t the leader of the Plot, despite our assumptions (that was Robert Catesby, who was shot and killed around three miles from where I live, down at Holbeche House), and even if he had been in charge, the whole thing is notable for being a failure. James i survived and the cause of Catholic Emancipation continued for another 200 years. And yet Guy is a more potent figure in Britain’s national consciousness than, say, Oliver Cromwell, who really was responsible for killing a king (well, at least partly).
So why is Guy Fawkes the focus of our commemorations? Maybe it was because he was caught red-handed, becoming a snapshot of the whole conspiracy. Maybe it’s because he survived to go to trial while many of the other Plotters were killed trying to escape. Maybe it’s because, in the Victorian era when the ‘accepted’ version of British history began to solidify, an author called William Harrison Ainsworth wrote a book in which Guy Fawkes was portrayed as a swashbuckling hero. And let’s face it, although Guy is now mainly celebrated through being burned in effigy, he’s still something of a folk hero – after all, he wanted to blow up the Houses of Parliament, and, well, no-one really likes politicians do they? It’s one of those symbols of comfortable Britishness that has its roots in protest – for another example, look at the second verse of ‘Jerusalem’ and its call for social reform, then try to square that with the climax of the Last Night of the Proms.
Nowadays, the image of Guy Fawkes has taken on a new edge. In 1982, Alan Moore and David Lloyd began their epic comic book series V for Vendetta, which received a big screen adaptation in 2005. The titular hero theatrically assassinates the representatives of a fascist dictatorship, all the while clad in cloak, hat and a stylised Guy Fawkes mask. That mask makes revolution anonymous and yet universal – anyone can resurrect Guy if they stand up against corrupt governments, you can’t be caught by their agents if they don’t know who you are, and turns a lone protestor into the embodiment of centuries of protest and revolt. V may have been born out of some very specific circumstances, but under the yoke of oppression, those circumstances aren’t entirely unique – everyone suffers, everyone has a responsibility to fight back.
That’s why, over the last few years, the mask used in the V for Vendetta movie has started to appear at protests, most notably concealing the features of Anonymous, the hacktivist group who have been making a splash with their Denial-of-Service attacks on corporate and government websites. They’re often seen in the crowds at Occupy campsites, which raises an interesting tension. Guy Fawkes and V both wanted change through violence and destruction – blow up the establishment and rebuild in a ‘better’ way – but Occupy is a non-violent movement. Occupy’s rallying cry is “We are the 99%”; the Guy mask is distancing, isolating, fitting Anonymous’s ‘persona’ as a vaguely threatening trickster figure, doing it for the lulz and telling its targets to “Expect us”. It’s meant to be unnerving.
(Of course, the problem is that it’s harder for authorities to dismiss, say, Scott Olsen, a former Marine who was seriously injured as the result of heavy-handed policing during a raise on Occupy Oakland, than it is for them to demonised a group hidden behind the face of a revolutionary. There are a generation of lawmakers and establishment figures who see the internet as either a Wild West that needs to be tamed or a dangerous fairyland – the threatening Other, and a Them-vs-us scenario fits right into their narrative. And when terrorism is used as an excuse to pass all kinds of legislation, it’s a red rag to a bull to appropriate the image of, well, a terrorist… Sure, Anonymous and Occupy aren’t the same thing, but in this age of protest, and when anti-protest agendas are in play, the boundaries can become blurred.)
Whatever the wisdom (or otherwise) of the V mask being appropriated for modern-day protests, Guy Fawkes still stalks our cities. He doesn’t want to blow anyone up anymore, thank goodness, but he still wants the world to change, still wants to make a stand. And the history books will record if, this time, he was successful.
PS. Alan Moore has written a piece on this very subject for the BBC. You can read it here.)