Remember, Remember the Fifth of November by James Sharpe

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Remember, Remember the Fifth of November by James Sharpe

Category: History
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A pithy, colourful, witty and above all, readable, history of Bonfire Night, Remember Remember has as much to say about the present as it does about the past. A surprisingly enjoyable read and definitely recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: October 2006
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 1861977875

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On the night of 5 November 1605, an English Catholic, Guy Fawkes, was discovered in a store room underneath the Palace of Westminster. The store room contained no less than thirty six barrels of gunpowder and Mr Fawkes was carrying the fuse. Had he succeeded in his mission, it is estimated that an area of London at least five hundred yards across would have been obliterated. The King and his family and just about the entire nobility would have died. It would have been the biggest act of terrorism the world had ever seen, has ever seen. And for the following four hundred years, in one way or another, Britons have celebrated the foiling of his plan. Yet Guy Fawkes himself wasn't a part of those celebrations for some two centuries.

It's a rather interesting story, well told. In Remember, Remember, Sharpe is very strong on his descriptions of the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath. He paints a very clear picture of religious tensions within English society and throughout Europe both before and after the plot. It's such a colourful story that you might think a stuffy history of it would spoil all the fun, but not so. Sharpe is clear, vivid and interesting. Today, our so-called War On Terror, in which our worries are much concerned with ideological conflict and religious fanaticism, isn't so very different from England in the seventeenth century and the book draws some very perspicacious parallels, especially on the subject of government propaganda. There's nothing like understanding yesterday in one's quest to understand today, is there? Sharpe has this to say on James I's measured response to the plot:

The King and his advisers were anxious... not to further destabilise relations with the religious minority within their midst. In this, James and his ministers showed more restraint than many modern regimes faced with similar problems.

Quite right, too.

The book also treats us to a joke or two:

The King's intellectual style, which has so often led to charges of pedantry against him, was typical of the period, and James emerges as that rarest of entities, a monarch with serious pretensions to intellectual ability.

Pardon me for laughing quite so heartily!

The narrative loses momentum a little in the middle chapters of the book, as varying ways of celebrating the fifth are described, and I did wonder where Sharpe was going, but it picks up again wonderfully with the description of the rowdy Lewes "Bonfire Boys" in the mid eighteenth century. Bonfire Night celebrations are still going strongly in Lewes today. Remember, Remember concludes with some interesting comment on the role of ritual within national identity and how it re-shapes over time to include the political and social sensibilities of the day. I felt very satisfied by Remember, Remember. I'm all for accessible and popular history and this is a great example. It's not stuffy, it's not dry; it's both informative and entertaining and it finds resonance within our current preoccupations.

For me, the thought of celebrating a foiled terrorist plot that arose from religious discrimination is, well, awkward. I don't want to do that. The thought of celebrating even the foiling of a current terrorist plot by burning effigies of the would-be perpetrators makes my skin crawl. Yet we do need community ritual, I feel we are the better for it. Ultimately, I agree with Sharpe, who is agreeing with Thomas Hardy, when he says that we need this festival to mark the beginning of winter and the best way to mark it is with fire. In Hardy's words:

To light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout nature. It indicates a Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death.

I can't think of a better excuse to build a bonfire, can you?

Buy Remember, Remember the Fifth of November by James Sharpe at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Remember, Remember the Fifth of November by James Sharpe at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Remember, Remember the Fifth of November by James Sharpe at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Remember, Remember the Fifth of November by James Sharpe at Amazon.com.


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Magda said:

Why three and half stars then?

I think 5th November has a very good chance of losing the memory of what it actually celebrates and becoming a semi-pagan celebration of the begging of winter.

Also I can just imagine the Guy's effigy becoming a universal vehicle for hate figures, not necessarily plotters but powerful rulers for example. Which might be bit barbaric, but somehow the higher the person placed the less barbaric and more symbolic and cathartic it becomes, I have no idea why but burning an effigy of the Pope or, let's say GW Bush is somehow more acceptable then of a common (or even uncommon) plotter or criminal. Or is it?

Jill replied:

Because it's good but not quite a classic!

I think burning effigies of anyone at all is repulsive, to be honest.