I feel a bit bad for Guy Fawkes. I know I shouldn’t really say that because he was a terrorist and was going to blow up the Houses of Parliament and everything but – blimey, it wasn’t like he was the only one, or even the ringleader. How many of the conspirators can you name? Robert Catesby (and I’d have to Wiki the rest, too) was the main man, yet Fawkes was the one caught with his fingers in the rather baleful biscuit barrel and so it’s his figure we burn every year on a bonfire, while we chant:
Guy, Guy, Guy
Stick him in the eye
Hang him on a bonfire
And there let him die
Pleasant little ryme, innit. The fireworks are for the explosives that never happened, and the bonfire because the conspirators had their innards thrown on a fire after they were hung until they were unconscious, and then drawn and quartered. Civilised times, don’t you think? Aside from anything else, fireworks give me the heebies. Sudden loud bangs are not my forte. I’m as highly strung as a poodle, and toast popping out of the toaster makes me shriek, so after a few rockets and Catherine Wheels George Formby could use my nerves for When I’m Cleaning Windows.
On a brighter note, we have improved since then. One of the most interesting books I’ve read this year is The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, which is a history of violence in society; and how we are actually becoming a lot nicer as a race. A lot of it is to do with the advent of the printing press, and literacy: stories being available to the masses. People were able to start empathising, and putting themselves in the shoes of others (animals and humans). Every time a local council/government decide they need to close a library, direct them to this worthy tome and point out how we’ll all go feral again without books!
I am quite serious though: books do make you see things from a different angle, put you in situations you would never find yourself in In Real Life, and introduce you to emotions and experiences outside of your own limited sphere. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is a prime example of this. Who’d have thought that you would be able to see things from the point of view of a murderer? But Capote makes his characters three-dimensional and Human, so you can hear their thoughts rather than just their words. Perhaps because I’ve read so much, that’s why I am peculiarly sensitive to Guy Fawkes, because he was a person, flawed and foolish and not necessarily particularly pleasant, but a lot more than an effigy on a bonfire. (It doesn’t help that I had a Discovery tape when I was 9 or so and he was ‘interviewed’ on it and sounded very sad and frightened, and I felt bad for him. At around this age, I had peculiar fits of compassion for others as well – I read a schoolbook about Hitler and my mum had to explain to me that just because he had been a brave soldier didn’t mean that he hadn’t been a Very Bad Man too.)
I’ve always been ‘blessed’ with a very vivid imagination though (as my post re Dracula relates!) and a sensitivity which goes to ridiculous extremes. I remember feeling so sorry for a red-and-yellow fountain pen that I eschewed the butterfly one I really wanted in favour of the one which sat alone and dusty, unwanted, on a shelf. As a young girl I felt acutely sorry for ugly items, possibly because I ‘knew how they felt’. (I used the red-and-yellow pen for a good few years, until I got the butterfly one – and that was promptly stolen by a girl in my school when I was 10. Donna, I know it was you, in case you’re reading this, and no, I haven’t forgotten.) I’ve always felt very sad for Judas, because he did something dreadful, but he had his part to play and if he hadn’t betrayed Jesus the rest of it could not have happened (whether you believe in it – which I do – or not). The Harrowing by Robert Dinsdale (an impressive debut set in World War One) gave me a different outlook on what might have happened to Judas, and what Jesus did in the three days after he died before his resurrection (the title is all that’s Biblical, as the book is a story about one brother going to pull the other out of the hell of war). I don’t know if it’s true or not (The Harrowing idea) as I’d never heard of it prior to reading this book, but I like to think it is.
Anyway. I think my sensitivity has certainly been heightened by the huge amount I’ve read, but I felt no sympathy at all with the characters in Toby’s Room by Pat Barker which I devoured last week. I devoured it because she writes so simply, so starkly. She paints the most hideous of pictures with the most delicate of colours so you can’t help but read on even when you wince and want to look away. This story of a brother and sister and what happens when he (Toby) is killed during World War One is both beautiful and brutal, but I found it difficult because I had no sympathy for Elinor and Toby; I’m afraid their ‘secret’ left me cold. However I want to read more of Barker’s books – I have been meaning to go through the Regeneration trilogy since they came out – and it’s not often that I enjoy reading a book where I don’t really like anyone in it!
I’ve also been reading Prescription for Murder about Harold Shipman (and I didn’t like him, either). This was a bit of an odd book. Shipman’s crimes, to me, have for some reason always seemed less horrific to Joe Public because his victims died so peacefully, without any sex or violence. This book points out that those he killed were old, yes, and some were ill, but they had as much right to life as anyone does, and most of them were in good health and still enjoying being on the planet. The fact that Shipman killed an estimated 200 people over a period of 30 years is something I can’t get my head round. The most chilling thing for me was reading how he killed four good friends, two couples who lived very close to each other, in a period of weeks. He just picked them off, decided to pay them a visit, and they trustingly held out their arms for his injection of death. Very disturbing. I’m glad I read this book because it taught me a lot about the case, and the author, while scraping somewhat at the barrel to find oddities in Shipman’s childhood or upbringing to explain his behaviour, takes care in ensuring that each of the victims are individuals. They are people: grandparents, parents, friends.
Much the same, on a Ripper Walk a few weeks ago in London, the guide focused a lot more on the women killed by “Jack” rather than Jack himself. The murderer didn’t matter so much as the innocent women he’d slaughtered, and he brought a real humanity to the macabre story. (Though it still drives me mad that nobody knows who Jack was.)
Anyway. Rather than burning Guy Fawkes over and over again for a crime he had quite a small part in, I think if we’re going to burn anyone at all, that we should emulate the inhabitants of Edenbridge, Kent, who burn a different ‘hate figure’ each year. Though, being a bit soft-hearted and fearful of people killing themselves because everyone loathes them, I’m leaning towards burning a ‘hate object’ rather than an individual, like a skinhead with a swastika tattoo, or a hoodie playing his music obnoxiously loud on public transport. Or whoever stole the Maltesers out of my study bay when I was 17. I haven’t forgotten that, either.
That’s enough of remembering, remembering. Guy, I think if Judas has been forgiven by now, I think you probably have as well, so I won’t be burning you next year. But I will be thinking about who to put in your place…