Remember, remember the fifth of November. Except it’s not really possible this year, is it? Given that we’re not even allowed to meet up in our gardens, the chances of anyone watching an effigy of an unfortunate 17th-century gentleman go up in flames today are zero.
In one way, I can’t say I am sorry. Guy Fawkes night is a very Protestant feast; when I was growing up in Ireland we’d never have celebrated the execution, following torture, of a man whose chief objective in seeking to blow up parliament was to secure greater freedom for Catholic worship. See Alice Hogge’s cracking book God’s Secret Agents about the sense of thwarted expectation following the accession of James I that led to the plot.
But that’s beside the point. The thing is, in recent years Guy Fawkes has been well and truly displaced by Halloween — or at least a version of it. In Ireland we always had Halloween, not the bastardised, commercialised festival of chocolate that is the contemporary festival (did you know, there’s an entirely new market now in scary children’s books for Halloween?). It was formerly a time for dressing up (in old clothes and masks) and ghosts all right, but it was a world away from a horror fest.
Everyone marks Halloween nowadays — though not this year! — with the atrocious American trick or treat thing… chocolates with menaces, plus pumpkins, which once only featured in Cinderella stories. What's more, in recent years, cosmopolitan Londoners have also been celebrating a very similar Mexican festival, the Day of the Dead, which is also associated with All Saints’ Day on 1 November and which is even more macabre.
Guy Fawke’s night has been replaced by a bonfire season, a chance to set off fireworks and have bonfires over the course of an entire fortnight. Vanishingly few people actually make an effigy of a guy and then burn it on the fifth, certainly not now, not if they want to avoid trouble. If they did, it’d probably be of Donald Trump.
But this year, it’s off, both the trick or treating and the bonfires. Covid has seen off Guy Fawkes and the entire bonfire season. Actually, given the abject condition of parliament, I’m not sure there’s much enthusiasm this year for celebrating its preservation.