Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Guy Fawkes Day

There’s nothing new under the sun. From The Thirty Year’s War I learn that in 1623 the Persians captured Bagdad from the Ottoman Turks and slaughtered all the Sunni residents who had not fled. Centuries of hate. I’ve also learnt from the book more than I ever need to know about 17th century military and its weapons.

Tomorrow will be the anniversary of the day in London 1605 when Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars of Parliament cellars with enough gun-powder to blow King, peers and commoners into oblivion. One conspirator advised a Catholic peer to stay away. The peer told Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s wily adviser, inherited by James 1. Cecil ordered the yeoman to search the cellars and so the conspiracy was revealed. Had it been successful the history of the British Isles could have been very different, probably something like the bloody conflict of the Thirty Year’s War. But the plot did not succeed. Instead its failure fastened the Protestant hold on the land.

When I was growing up Halloween was unknown but Guy Fawkes Day was celebrated. I have a vague memory of Pop letting off crackers when I was very young but the war meant the end of fireworks for some time. Each year, however, there were bonfires and a guy was burnt. Gradually after the war fireworks came back. Private and public bonfires have vanished to be replaced by public fireworks displays.

The American presidential elections sometimes fall on Guy Fawkes Day. In my lifetime thrice, 1940 Roosevelt for the third time, 1968 Richard Nixon and in 1996 Bill Clinton for a second term. In Roosevelt’s time I was a school-boy. Pop, a Roosevelt fan, was distressed when the President died. When Pearl Harbour happened Pop firmly placed me before the radio. “This is a historic moment,” he said as Roosevelt delivered his day of infamy speech. In Nixon’s time I was head of English at Melville High School in Hamilton. When Clinton went back I was Executive Director of the New Zealand Teachers Council. I measure my life in terms of the American Presidents. Such and such an event happened when Kennedy was in the White House. I, like most other humans have no say in the election of the most powerful person on the planet. That decision affects us all.

That sentence would not have been written in my early life. Britain was still the centre of the most powerful Empire the world had ever seen. New Zealanders sang Kipling’s Recessional without really believing it. On Guy Fawkes Day 1914 the Empire was extended when the United Kingdom declared war on Turkey and annexed Cyprus. Two later events illustrate the waning of that power, both happening on November 5th. In 1956 I lay on university hostel bed listening to the radio, British and French paratroopers landing in Port Said. Eisenhower was not impressed at this invasion of Egypt. The control of oil in the Middle East was shifting from Europe to the USA.

In 2003 Cyprus was granted the opportunity to apply for membership of the European Union. How the Empire’s changed. The first time I went to London I walked straight through as a Commonwealth citizen, my passport stamped by a man with a Cockney accent. The last time I waited while Europeans strolled past, my passport stamped by a Pakistani woman.

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