Sunday, November 4, 2012

Guy Fawkes and the Common Cold

A poem to explain the evening: 

Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot ;
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot
.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
'Twas his intent.
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below.
Poor old England to overthrow.
By God's providence he was catch'd,
With a dark lantern and burning match

Holloa boys, Holloa boys, let the bells ring
Holloa boys, Holloa boys, God save the King!

Hip hip Hoorah !
Hip hip Hoorah !


That's basically what Guy Fawkes Day is-- a day celebrating that the plot to blow up parliament was foiled.  What happened is a bit more complicated than the poem suggests, though not much.

In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died and James I took over the throne.  He was no more tolerant of the Catholics than Elizabeth had been and the Catholics, who had been persecuted under Elizabeth and were angered that the persecution would continue, were upset.  So, 13 men plotted to blow up parliament in an attempt to assassinate the King, and potentially his son who might be there as well, in hopes of overturning the government and getting a ruler more favorable to the Catholics.  (To this day, the monarch is always present on the opening day of parliament-- he or she is part of the ceremony which opens it. It's tradition-- and it wasn't even rethought after this event.)  Parliament was to open in 1605 on November 5.  However, the King got word of the plot.  Guy Fawkes was the man in the cellar beneath parliament guarding the 36 barrels of gunpowder that were going to be used to blow up parliament; he was captured, tortured,and executed (though he preempted his own hanging by jumping off the platform and breaking his neck on his own) for treason.  The King ordered bonfires be set the evening of November 5 to celebrate his safety.  This is where Guy Fawkes night comes from.

It doesn't necessarily happen on the 5th though. It seems to happen on the Saturday closest to Guy Fawkes Day-- this year, November 3.  This makes some sense because there's a lot of  festivities involved and Guy Fawkes isn't a bank holiday, so if it's in the middle of the week, everyone would still have to go to work and school the next day.

In many ways, Guy Fawkes night is like our Fourth of July-- there are fireworks, there is beer, there are foods being cooked on grills. Of course, it's celebrating the capture of a traitor, not the birth of a nation (some people say they are celebrating the safety of the king; some say they are raising a glass to those who tried to do away with parliament...either way, it's a day named to commemorate at traitor. It would be a little like creating a day in the US to celebrate the capture of the Rosenbergs.).  And, it's an outdoor celebration planned for cold, not warm, weather.  The Brits might be the only people who would gather outdoors when it's already really cold outside and celebrate for hours.  

It was really cold; yet there were thousands and thousands of people in the streets.  There have never been so many people waiting at my bus stop at one time.They were all headed to a giant park field where carnival rides, food stands, and drink stands were set up and where fireworks were set off.  It was a mob scene (there were reports that some people stood in queue for over an hour just to get in.  And, those people had tickets.).  This, however, was not where I was headed.  Instead, I headed to the Isis Farmhouse (written about at length in a previous blog-- notable for only being able to access by foot or by boat, which meant a 30 minute walk each way, along the Thames, in the dark and cold) for their Guy Fawkes celebration.

I have no idea if the Isis was any more or less traditional than the fair that was happening in the field. It was a smaller affair, though the farmhouse, which is quite small, was still packed.  In fact, only a few people could actually hang out inside the pub.  So, in that way, it was much like all the other celebrations-- it was outdoors, and outdoors for hours. There were drinks like beer and mulled wine and regular wine (though, not the winter pimms I had been looking forward to- I haven't had winter pimms yet.) and food-- I got lentil and chestnut soup which was really good. There were also sausage rolls, or hotdogs as the Brits kept calling them, though they were much fancier than a hotdog. They looked really good, but the soup was filling, so I never had one.

Rather than carnival rides, the Isis had bands.  And, it didn't produce its own fireworks, though there were fireworks displays going off in every direction and they could be seen from the Isis, so that was good.  This is different from 4th of July--  there are many, many sets of fireworks. And, they seem to go intermittently for several hours. So, they started around 7 and then kept coming in spurts until about 9:30 or 10.  There weren't any "grand finale" explosions the way there are on the 4th; more an intermittent stream of several exploding at one time (or maybe there were "grand finales" but I missed them while I was listening to the bands.)

There were four bands that night. The first one, which was two girls singing (so, more a musical act than a "band") was really good, but the music was kind of slow and haunting. I think was expecting music that was more rousing and patriotic, and this definitely was not. 



The music did get more lively as the night went on, but it was never in that patriotic vein.  In fact, the next group was an African drumming group. They were amazing though.


They had just about everyone up and dancing (which I tried to film, but it was all in a tight, pretty dimly lit space and everything I filmed was too chaotic to get a real sense of it.  But, you can get a sense of the music.)

  
After the dancing, there was the bonfire.  This, to me, seems to be the ultimate Guy Fawkes event since the it's not just a bonfire, but it's also a burning. The effigy of  Guy Fawkes is set aflame-- you can sort of see him in the flames.


And, then, people who had brought their own effigies threw them into the fire as well. I didn't quite understand this part though-- I guess the Isis owners had decided to have a theme to the effigy burning, so instead of little Guy Fawkes dolls, they were throwing in dolls of hated literary figures.  I had heard that often there is some theme to the Guy Fawkes dolls  for individual bonfires (like, they are all dressed in some themed way-- like as cowboys-- or they are all made out of a particular substance- -like corn dolls.  And, everyone going to the bonfire would know that theme.), so maybe this made more sense to those who celebrate every year.  They also yell things at the burning dolls.





After the bonfire, there were two more bands.  One was a group of three guys.




And the other was a group with lots of instruments which was apparently missing the cellist and base player for the evening. I'm not quite sure where they would have fit into the small space anyway.




They did, at one point, play Simple Joys (below) which doesn't matter much to anyone, I'm sure, except that it's from Pippin, which I worked on when I was in high school but which isn't a well known play. So, I was surprised that anyone was doing a cover from Pippin.


There was also a musical rendition of The Jabberwocky, as close to an Oxford anthem as there is since Lewis Carroll taught at Christs Church and lived in Oxford. I didn't have my camera out at that point though.  

After the bands were over, everyone was invited to hang around and drink more, but I was fairly zapped of energy at that point-- I had a cold coming on (and a long walk back, in the dark and cold, to the bus that would drop me near my flat to exacerbate the feeling I was getting sick). I had gone a search earlier in the day for Cold-eeze because I knew the cold (which has now settled in as I'm typing this) was coming.  It turns out, there is no Cold-eeze in the UK (I don't think it's on shelves anywhere outside the US, though it can be ordered online-- I didn't have that much time to wait since it has to be taken in the first 24 hours of the onset of symptoms.).  I tried to explain to the pharmacist (who, herself, seemed to be coming down with a cold) what it is-- she seemed fascinated by it and started asking me all sorts of questions about it (so if there is suddenly a British demand for Cold-eeze, I would like some kind of sales commission).  Pharmacists are really knowledgeable and friendly here-- at least in Oxford.  Unless an actual prescription is needed, it's really just as helpful to go see one of them as it is to go to a doctor.

There was some kind of dissolving fizzy thing that combined zinc and vitamin C that the pharmacist suggested but which didn't seem like quite the same thing-- and, I wasn't sure how I was going to drink enough of it to overload my system with zinc the way I wanted to.  I decided to leave it as a backup plan and went to the health food store; the people who worked there were equally perplexed by my description of Cold-eeze, but showed me what they had by way of lozenges.  What I did find is not quite the same thing, but it's a combination of zinc and vitamin C (which the pharmacist kept insisting I really needed, more than the zinc-- actually, what I got was a lot like what the pharmacist recommended but without the problem of having to drink it. And, with a slightly higher dose of zinc.). The zinc is basically in the same dose as the zinc glutinate lozenges sold in the US. And, it's in lozenge form-- as well as significantly cheaper than the similar product the pharmacy was selling (which the health food store also had).   

My conviction that zinc really does help mitigate a cold might be totally psychosomatic, but I don't feel nearly as bad today as I could, so I've decided that the zinc/vitamin C combo that I've been sucking down every few hours since yesterday afternoon is doing what I want it to, largely making it possible that I might be totally recovered by the time my next visitor, my dad, arrives on Wednesday and we head off to more exciting places (which I don't want to do sick).  It is in moments of dealing with the mundane, like when I'm congested and sniffley, that I"m reminded it's not easy to actually live abroad. It's England, so everyone speaks English which makes it deceptively seem like it should be easy to manage the everyday banalities like finding cold medicine (or, rather, homeopathic remedies for a cold-- there is Tylenol cold here if I decide I need to mask the symptoms), but nothing is quite the same. It's all just different enough that it takes a bit of work (like reading the labels of every single product that says it contains zinc to find one that may or may not be similar to an American product) to get what you want or need.  That, combined with going to holiday celebrations unique to this country do still continue to conspire to remind me I'm very much a foreigner here, even if I do understand and speak the language. 

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