The man represented by the dummy on top of the bonfire died almost 400 years ago. He was a terrorist, motivated by religion, and was tortured as an enemy of the state - utterly different, of course, from the way we live now.
Not that the Fifth of November has any particular historical relevance these days; the figure burnt on that night has come to represent pretty much anyone who has become something of a public enemy. For a family bonfire a couple of years ago, someone brought along an effigy of George W Bush; how we laughed as the flames engulfed his stuffed straw body and licked around facial features that, oddly seemed, more lifelike on the effigy than on the real thing.
For all our pride at the civilised values represented, or so we like to think, by this country, there is something peculiarly bloodthirsty about the way we enjoy our annual ritual. The Americans, after all, do not believe that they are symbolically stabbing George III when they carve their Thanksgiving turkey. On Bastille Day in France, there are no domestic enactments of the beheading of aristocrats. There may be other rituals around the world in which death and pain are celebrated for family entertainment, but England has led the way.
Not so long ago, we might not have worried about what this ritual reveals about our national personality, but the more globally-minded the world has become, the more nations have taken to fretting about what makes them different from others. The English have been relatively slow to analyse themselves, perhaps because the results are rarely cheering, but recently a new self-consciousness has begun to kick in.
This autumn, the critic and writer A A Gill has come up with the perfect present for anyone fond of national self-flagellation with a new book called The Angry Nation. England is downright embarrassing, he argues; collectively, its inhabitants are "a lumpen and louty, coarse, unsubtle, beady-eyed, beefy-bummed herd". There can be fewer people in this world who conform less to this description than the svelte, witty and trim figure of Gill himself - but that, apparently, is because, although he looks, sounds and probably behaves like a very proper Englishmen, he is, in his blood and in his heart, Scottish.
The problem with the English, apart from beefy bums, beady eyes and the rest, is that we are all bristling with pent-up resentment at the world outside, at public figures, at TV, at the weather, at other people generally. The barometer of national mood, according to Adrian Gill, ranges from irritation to rage. It is for precisely that reason that we are addicted to making rules, following convention and etiquette, repressing anything that might pass for an emotion. Without these things to hold us in check, we are so pissed off with everything that we would simply run amok.
Those who have read Gill's TV reviews will be aware that, as this argument trundles along, a conundrum the size of a large juggernaut threatens to squash it flat. The reason why his prose is readable and funny is precisely because it is propelled by its author's rage. In fact, if our culture is "really only comfortable with two public emotions - fury and sniggering", then it is people like A A Gill who provide its backing track.
Anger may well be England's ruling passion, but that is nothing to be ashamed of; indeed it is what makes English politics, newspapers, writing, comedy, conversation and everyday life so discomfiting and yet so interesting. As a nation, we don't do happiness. It is almost as impossible to imagine England producing an amiable sitcom like Friends or a feelgood film like Amélie as it is to think of an American Pinter, a French Ricky Gervais, and German Mike Leigh.
Unfortunately, it is an awkward fact that brilliant disgruntlement is part of the same behavioural continuum as aspects of national life of which it is less easy to feel proud: yobbery and violence, uncouth football chants, nightmarish Saturday nights on the High Street, the whole circus of dysfunctionality that the so-called "respect agenda" has now been introduced to quell.
Thousands of people have seen quite enough of the angry island. They sell up, move abroad and live their lives, unstressed and yet still simmering gently with discontent, beside a swimming-pool in a less emotionally turbulent part of the world.
Happiness is not the same as satisfaction. Many people seethe because there is much to seethe about, because they are alive, because the old rage that did for Guy Fawkes is still flickering away undimmed. It was reported a couple of weeks ago that a local council in Hampshire, mindful of the environment, health and safety, global warming and so on, advised its residents to compost their leaves rather than burning them on bonfire night. Like the respect agenda, it is a sensible idea, but seriously underestimates the glorious rage and savagery that still lurks within English hearts.Reuse content