There’s only one city that celebrates its parliament almost blowing up

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 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

Last year, Bonfire Night was cancelled on Halloween and I threw things at Boris Johnson’s televised head. But this year the best — and arguably only — festivity brought to you entirely thanks to London is back.

Thanksgiving is for Americans, Christmas is commercial and New Year fireworks detonate across 24 time zones, but there’s only one city on earth that tried to blow up its parliament on November 5 and celebrates the thwarting of “gunpowder, treason and plot” 400 years later.

For anyone who needs a real history lesson, I hear the London Dungeon is putting on an immersive experience until midnight (tickets £30) but for those who need a quick recap, in 1605 Guy Fawkes was caught with 36 barrels of explosives that had been stowed under the House of Lords on November 4. Under torture he admitted he was part of a Catholic conspiracy to overthrow the protestant king, James I.

According to English Heritage, together with Robert Catesby, Thomas Winter, John Wright and Thomas Percy, Fawkes had started planning the attack on Sunday May 20, the year before, at the Dog and Duck pub near the Strand, which was where the Penguin offices are now.

The first bout of revelry that November 5 must have been spontaneous. Even when faith in parliament is very low, the capital is still partying tonight. It is sort of thanks to that same parliament that we do so. An Observance of 5th November Act was passed in 1606 and ordered annual, public thanksgiving for the failure of the Gunpowder Plot.

King James’s vision for the day was a nationwide church service advertised by enthusiastic bell-ringing with added sermons extolling the benevolence of protestant rule. Fun as that sounds, by the 1640s, Britain marked it with bonfires instead — with effigies of the Pope or a devil thrown on top.

By the Victorian era, the yearly party situation was more ungovernable than pre-Covid Clapham Junction at chucking out time. “The people of England in general, of late years, have discouraged these processions and riots,” William Darton, who wrote a series of children’s books about London walks, noted in 1845. “Even in the present time some idle people will fire guns.”

From Ally Pally to Crystal Palace, the firework displays tonight should be back to their pre-lockdown best. But a friend has forwarded me the safety measures at Wimbledon Park, which are so tight (no alcohol, no sparklers) it will be no match for the action seen at Tower Hill in 1851.

“The police did not interfere with the discharge of simple fireworks,” The Times reported that year. “But many persons commenced firing off pistols and small cannon mounted on very rude carriages and got up a mock bombardment of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace of the Tower of London, to the great amusement of the crowd. The fortress sustained no damage, and it was understood the only loss on the part of the besiegers was a boy’s finger blown off in firing a large horse pistol.” The compulsory celebration of the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot was repealed eight years later.

Disputes vary as to where best to see the sky light up. Defending a particular park or vantage point as the best place is an argument unsettled as “north or south of the river?” A four star review of Parliament Hill on Tripadvisor is headlined “not very good for fireworks viewing…” As a Hill, I know a lot about them, so I refute this. Parliament Hill is in fact the best place to see fireworks on November 5, especially if you can’t see anything. Originally known as “Traitor’s Hill”, it’s allegedly now called “Parliament Hill” because it was said to be the place that Fawkes’s co-conspirator Catesby planned to watch the gunpowder explode in 1605 and he never got to see that either.

Tonight, I’ll be wandering about on my own staring at the river. The very thought of being in Battersea Park with a bombardment overhead makes me shiver like the sort of small animal Battersea Dogs & Cats Home is so concerned about.

But there’s no night that makes me feel more like a Londoner than Guy Fawkes’s — even in the days when I was failing as a writer and brutally unhappy in house shares in areas where firecrackers were thrown on the bus. It doesn’t matter if you’re alone when this city puts on a show. All you need is to put a coat on, wrap your arms around a lamppost and look up. There’s nothing so magical as fire in the dark.

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