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By Adam Lyal, November 5, 2017 - 7:31pm
The Gunpowder Plotters, with added Lyal

Although we have recently been preoccupied with some other popular-culture boondoggle that apparently ought to be worthy of a scribble, this year I thought I'd focus my attention on that other festive date that's often a bit of an afterthought, falling as it does in the wake of that merchandise-bloated celebration of death and all. I speak, of course, of Guy Fawkes' Night.

Yes, this evening communities across the land will be commemorating an absolutist monarchist's failed attempt to demolish the seat of our then-nascent democracy in the hopes of restoring a dynastic dictatorship as the proper government of these Isles. We will burn him in effigy, but at the same time we will be detonating many more kilotons of explosive than he sought to unleash upon the Mother of Parliaments, in the form of jaunty firecrackers across the night sky.

Doesn't this seem a bit of a mixed message? It seems as though on the one hand we're lauding Fawkes's punishment for the act of terrorism he intended, yet on the other applauding the prospect of the bravura spectacle that was denied us by his capture. We're relieved that he failed, but wish we could have watched him succeed. Whether this speaks of our complicated relationship with our government, or our love of big explosions, I cannot say.

Guy Fawkes has had a curious rehabilitation in recent years. In 1988, Alan Moore made his face the guise of a deranged, vengeful anti-fascist revolutionary in his ground-breaking comic series V For Vendetta, adapted for the screen in 2005. The Guy Fawkes mask then became the emblem of the Anonymous hacktivist collective, a decentralised anarchist framework with no fixed objective but a tendency to oppose what its mercurial membership see as offenses to natural justice. The masks are licensed by Time Warner, owner of the media and merchandising rights to V For Vendetta, and are reputed to now be one of its all-time most lucrative items. The anti-capitalist activists who purchase them have presumably made their peace with this irony.

Although casting "V" in the image of Fawkes was simply a dramatic convenience, it has carried this anti-establishment icon into this new century in a guise I doubt the man himself could have imagined. When you see that implacable, Van Dyke'd visage facing down a riot cop at next year's G20 shindig, try to remember he's the same Guy you watched slowly roasting on the bonfire this November. But perhaps above all, remember the words that Moore put in his mouth:

People should not be afraid of their governments.
Governments should be afraid of their people.

For a people inclined to say "Sorry" to someone else who barges into us on the street, and whose totems of resistance sometimes come from somewhat counterintuitive sources, we still harbour an instinct for rebellion that, while buried ever so deep, should never be forgot.

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