fall back position

Always remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason, and plot!
We see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

I have been recalcitrant with my writing on this site. My personal life justifies this, but it’s time to get back to it, and November 5th seems a good day. This day is known as Guy Fawkes day. In the late 1500’s and early 1600’s people who openly practiced Catholicism in Britain were subject to fines and restrictions for their faith. With the coronation of the nominally Catholic king James I, many Catholics throughout Britain looked for some respite, but the new King chose to work with Parliament to maintain the level of persecution. (The fines brought in a nice and regular subsidy to the treasury.) In 1605 a group of Catholics, feeling disappointed and betrayed by the new king, attempted regicide and the assassination of all the members of Britain’s Parliament. In the off-season they rented a cellar under the house of parliament and stocked it with gunpowder. They intended to blow it up when the king sat to reopen Parliament, but on November 5th, 1605, their plot was discovered or betrayed. Guy Fawkes did not orchestrate the plan; he was just the conspirator guarding the cellar that day, and he was was caught red-handed. The authorities tortured and broke him in a few days. He signed a formal confession dated November 8, and the other would-be terrorists were rounded up or killed in the following weeks. Guy Fawkes was publicly executed, along with some of the other conspirators, on January 31, 1606, before a large enthusiastic crowd. The prisoners were first bound and dragged behind horses through the streets of London to the gallows. Then, the plan was that each was to be hung by noose, to strangle them a little, but not to death, and then to castrate and disembowel each of them on a table set up in the square for that purpose, then to cut each man into four pieces, and then (finally) cut off each convict’s head and mount it on a spike for public display (traditionally on London Bridge). In the age of the divine right of kings, to be ‘hung, drawn, and quartered’ was the standard sentence of the time for treason. As well as being the first of the conspirators caught, Guy Fawkes also has the distinction that his last act was a public act of defiance. When he was on the gallows platform he jumped high so that when he fell, the knot of his noose broke his neck and he died instantly, disappointing, and maybe impressing, the gathered crowds.

Now the story goes that in the following years, Guy Fawkes, for his sins, is burned in effigy on the evening of November 5th. Traditionally, a big straw model is made in the shape of a man, and there is a community bonfire and some drinking and, in later years, fireworks. However, long before Guy Fawkes, long before there were Anglicans or even Catholics, people in northern European communities were making straw manikins and burning them in annual end-of-harvest celebrations. Maybe it was a re-enactment of the ‘death’ of the pagan Deity of Agriculture, who will be ‘reborn’ in the coming spring (our Easter celebration). Maybe it was mutual encouragement, a way for the people of a community to demonstrate to themselves that they had enough harvested to make it through the long winter ahead (Look, we can even burn some of it up! We aren’t scared!) And I expect there was usually some drinking and merry-making on the side. In the 1600’s, peasants in farming communities throughout Britain were still enjoying this ancient celebration, and the Anglican establishment thought to bring this activity formally into the state religion. The fires throughout the countryside were explained as metaphorically burning Guy Fawkes, as a celebration of order over chaos, of the monarchy over the Catholic conspirators. And the odd little poem at the start of this post was one feature of that campaign.

It’s always at about the same time, but this year Guy Fawkes Day happens to fall on the very day we are to set our clocks back 1 hour. Daylight Saving Time has ancient origins, maybe even as old as the end-of-harvest bonfires. It would have always made sense, in Agrarian societies in northern climes, to work longer days during the summer and into the harvest time. And then, when all the work was done, kick back and relax, and then hunker down to survive the cold winter. This seasonal routine long predated clocks. The industrial revolution brought modern clocks, artificial lights, time zones, and railway schedules to Europe and North America. In the 1800’s the exciting ideal – having every clock within a range of 15° longitude agree on the time – blinded many to the advantages of seasonal temporal variations. Modern Daylight Saving Time was initiated in the early 1900’s, for the same reasons as before, to give people more daylight hours in which to work during the summer, and the switch back to regular hours was made after Hallowe’en. Fall Back night is a modern version of that same ancient end-of-harvest celebration as Guy Fawkes night.

So, in the spirit of the season, set your clocks back an hour. Check your batteries in your smoke alarms and CO monitors, change the filter in your furnace, get yourself ready for a good restful winter. And remember that nothing much has changed.


I read  The Unbroken Machine by Dale Smith. I will post in detail about the ideas in this work shortly, but I strongly recommend that, if you read my website, you should read this book. In later posts I intend to challenge many of the ideas put forward in The Unbroken Machine; I do not agree with the central thesis. But I am very grateful to Mr. Smith for describing in clear language the broad strokes of the mechanism of Democracy in Canada. And, I appreciate his enthusiasm on this topic. His work deserves to be considered and pondered and, despite himself, can act as a catalyst for improvements in our ways of governing.  More to come.

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