Firework displays now being a public event best held on a weekend evening (no school tomorrow) as well as on November 5th itself, it is possible to dodge about in your local area and go to three or four to satisfy your cravings for loud bangs and sparkly lights. In the NorthernReader household it is a widely-held, but incorrect, belief that the nation leaps into this paroxysm of fiery festivity to celebrate our wedding anniversary – yes, Reader, I married him on November 5th, thus extinguishing any possibility of getting away with forgetting the date. The lovely KatePonders has also now discovered for herself that Germany does not mark the occasion, whether of the NorthernReader nuptials or of the foiled attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
It is quite odd, as of course so many things are should we actually stop for a moment to think about them, that we cheerfully celebrate what, whichever way you look at it, was quite a nasty incident. Had Catesby and his chums succeeded, pretty much the entire ruling class in England would have been wiped out – and before you mutter, ‘no loss’ and start toying with radical sympathies, it is probably worth spending a moment or two considering the pain, suffering and death the project would have inflicted. Even the most unpleasant governments are made up of real live human beings, and causing them gratuitous suffering should be no part of our plans. Which noble thought brings us to what did actually happen, which was the harrowing torture and execution of the failed plotters. In amongst the dates we mark in this country, it would perhaps be good to include 13th August 1964. Not familiar with it? It is the date on which the last death sentences in the United Kingdom were carried out.
So a thoroughly grisly bookshelf seems to be in order this week. Let’s start with Antonia Fraser, who has written extensively on the Gunpowder Plot. She is a terrific guide to historical events because she brings to her narratives the instincts of a thriller-writer (which she also is). Admittedly it would take a heart of stone not to find the unfolding details of the 1605 plot utterly absorbing, but I suspect that Fraser could make the Repeal of the Corn Laws into a page-turner. She contributed one of the very best chapters to the compelling Gunpowder Plots, a collection of highly enjoyable essays by experts in their various fields – the history of explosives, early Stuart Britain, the politics of monarchy – published in 2005, the four-hundredth anniversary of the failed coup attempt.
Bearing in mind the extremely sensible observation of Sir John Harrington, ‘Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason’, we might limit the treacherous stretches of our bookshelf to a couple of must-reads: Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. If you haven’t seen Hitchcock’s film, incidentally, do so: but read the book as well. And I think we should have Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands while we’re about it. Hugely influential as more or less the founding text of the spy novel genre, the novel – which remains gripping to this day – was widely credited with forcing a change in British military and naval policy in preparing for possible invasion. Childers’ life was almost unfeasibly dramatic and, ultimately, tragic : there are biographies, of which Leonard Piper’s Dangerous Waters: the Life and Death of Erskine Childers is a fine example, and it seems strange that as yet there has been no film.
We have talked before (Week 28) about our regrettable tendency to glamorise spying and treachery. It is sobering to read of some of the Cold War conspiracies – A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre, Michael Holzman’s Guy Burgess (although you must promise to see Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad, with Alan Bates as Burgess and Coral Browne as herself). We should remember, too, that the Armada was not some jolly boating party serendipitously fended off by Francis Drake in between games of bowls. The Spanish were attempting to slip up the English Channel to land in the Low Countries, pick up their army, a byword for terror, and invade England. The plan was more Pol Pot than the costumes let on. If you want to know what people who had a taste of them thought of the Spanish army, look, long, hard and thoughtfully, as Bruegel’s painting, The Massacre of the Innocents. Notice how it isn’t set in first-century Palestine? See the storm-trooper gear the soldiers are wearing?
My point, dearest reader, is that enforced change is rarely an awfully good thing: and that the merchants of change are so depressingly often better at the enforcing than the changing. Non-fiction – history, biography – tells us this, but fiction makes us know it in our hearts. Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory will give us plenty to contemplate. Quick: let us draw comfort from John Donne. Who but Donne could take the age-old fear of treachery and betrayal in love and turn it to sublime triumph?
Here upon earth, we’re Kings, and none but we
Can be such Kings, nor of such subjects be.
Who is so safe as we? Where none can do
Treason to us, except one of us two.
Written while that same James who was the target of the Gunpowder Plot still sat upon his throne, Donne’s poem, ‘The Anniversarie’, shelters us from paranoia and a world where we are told to be afraid all the time. Find love, he says, and you can know what it is to trust. It’s worth setting off a few fireworks to celebrate.