Treason and carnage
Yesterday marked the 409th anniversary of the so-called Gunpowder Plot of November 5 1605, a conspiracy by militant Catholics to assassinate King James VI of Scotland and I of England during the state opening of the English Parliament. When news of the plot was leaked to the authorities, one of the prototype terrorists, Guido 'Guy' Fawkes, was discovered guarding the 36 barrels of gunpowder that would've blown the House of Lords, and everyone inside, to smithereens.
Fawkes' sentence made Guantanamo Bay seem like a Sunday School picnic. He was to be dragged to a scaffold by a horse, feet-first, strangled by a rope, then prior to outright death, have his genitals hacked off and burnt in front of him, with the same treatment meted out to his bowels and heart. If there was the faintest glimmer of life after this, he was to be decapitated. He would then form a human jigsaw, with various parts of his dismembered anatomy publicly displayed for the gratification of gloating by-passers and hungry crows. In the end, he launched himself from the scaffold and broke his neck, robbing the baying masses of his prolonged agonies.
Like many aspects of British folklore, the reasons for quaint customs are usually lost in antiquity. Why do Morris dancers blacken-up and jingle their bells? Why do we 'first foot' neighbours on January 1? But whether or not we appreciate the origins of all the miniature explosions every November 5, we continue celebrating 17th century sectarian violence by clogging A and R departments with burns victims and terrorising pets. Aside from the health and safety issues, a sinister development was enacted by local councils in south-east England on November 5 2014. East Sussex County Council tweeted a picture of an effigy of Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, intended to be destroyed in a bonfire at a family event in the town centre of Lewes. A bit of harmless fun?
More damaging than gunpowder
We are familiar with the burning of star-spangled banners by mobs displaying fury at the intervention of the US military in hotspots, chiefly the Middle East. But a democratically-elected politician, whose policies were recently endorsed by just under half of Scotland's electorate? Salmond has rebuffed his ludicrous paper-mache caricatures, although in his customary style, he has twisted it to his advantage, citing his effigies as symbolic of his threat to Westminster - a threat far more potentially damaging than barrels of gunpowder. However, the burning of effigies, such as the wholesale book incineration by Nazi brownshirts in the 1930s, has always signified crass reactionary forces. This case is surely more indicative of the ethnic intolerance that is creeping into strands of English politics, especially in the wake of the Scottish referendum.
In one of the effigies, Salmond is joined by that other tartan stereotype, the Loch Ness monster, as he sits upon a seat labelled 'North Sea Oil'. Although the Council in question claimed to have backed-off from their ludicrous effigy-burning after complaints were made to the police, photographs have since emerged on social media of the giant Salmond puppet in flames. For his supporters, the one good point is that none of the cretins involved in the xenophobic pyromania will have any say in the make-up of future Scottish governments.
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