London, England Guy Fawkes and Osama bin Laden

Big Ben and Houses of Parliament London England
I write on November 5th which, in England, is Guy Fawkes' Day. Most Americans know nothing of Guy but, 400 years ago, he was the Osama bin Laden of his day. In 1605, Guy and a group of fellow conspirators gathered a large quantity of gunpowder in the cellars under the Houses of Parliament in London, England. The plan was to blow the place up while Parliament was in session. Like Osama, Guy was a religious terrorist. However, Guy was a Roman Catholic, rather than a Moslem. Another important difference from New York City 2001 was the efficiency of the local security services, which uncovered the plot before the explosion, captured the conspirators and executed them.

Guy Fawkes
Guy did not make it to a hideaway on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Those charged with protecting Parliament were actually allowed to share information with each other, quite unlike the FBI and the CIA four centuries later. To celebrate the failure of this conspiracy, the English have on every November 5th since built bonfires, exploded fireworks and burned the wretched Guy Fawkes in effigy. This celebration takes place nationwide and, to this day, small boys eagerly await the arrival of Guy Fawkes' Day. By the way, this paragraph speaks of the English rather than the British, because England did not unite with Scotland to form Britain until 1707. Many years ago, I was responsible for a bonfire on Guy Fawkes' Day that burned particularly brightly. Here is how it happened.

The year was 1961. I had just accepted an assignment that required me to live in West Africa for two or three years. At the time, I was living with my parents in a little row house in the suburbs of London, about ten miles from where Guy had come unstuck in 1605. My first problem was the transportation from London to West Africa of my books, sports equipment, clothes and the like. How, for example, does a cricket bat fit into a suitcase? A buddy of mine told me to throw all my gear into a big crate and to call up a shipping line to handle the problem thereafter. Moreover, he would provide the crate. The packing department of his company would make it. What size did I want the crate to be?  Foolishly, I asked him to have it made four foot square. A few days later, a fine wooden crate of exactly those dimensions was delivered to my parents' little house.

Shipping Crate
My next problem was that a four foot square crate cannot pass through a door. Much to the irritation of my parents, I therefore left the crate outside the front of the house, where it quickly filled up with rainwater until I learned to cover it with a tarpaulin. I dropped all my prized belongings out of the upper windows of the house and into the crate below. By this time the crate was too heavy to move, but that was not my problem. I simply nailed it shut and instructed The Elder Dempster Shipping Line to collect it and to deliver it to me in Lagos, Nigeria as soon as possible. I then headed for London's Heathrow Airport carrying just one suitcase. The threats of my parents, as to what they would do with the crate and its contents if it did not swiftly follow me to Africa, were ringing in my ears.

Elder Dempster Lines African destinations 
But the crate did follow me to Africa. It was delivered to me in Lagos, Nigeria a few weeks later together with an enormous invoice for the cost of its shipping. I emptied the crate, but once again was forced to leave it outside my new home. Even houses in colonial Africa did not have doors over four feet wide. What was I to do with the crate?  I expected my problem to be solved by the theft of the crate, but this did not happen. Not even the most clueless Nigerian thief wanted to explain to the police why my four feet crate was standing outside his home. To prevent the crate filling up with tropical rains, I always kept it covered with a tarpaulin. My tarpaulins were often stolen, but never the crate. By 1964, it was time for me to return to London. I had a lot to bring back with me. I had all kinds of West African memorabilia. There were shields, spears, carvings, books, sculptures, paintings, etc, etc. It was time for the crate to step up to the plate once again, so I filled it to the brim. To prevent the theft of these contents, I had to hire a day watchman and a night watchman. It was also necessary to fix the lid with a hundred screws in order to slow down any attempt to break into it. The crate was by now too heavy to move, which was another useful disincentive to theft. Once again The Elder Dempster Shipping Line was instructed to solve the problem, but I started my return journey to London never expecting to see that crate again. The locals were just starting the conflict, which came to be known as the Biafran war, in the course of which Lagos was bombed. Surely my crate would never survive?

I then returned to live with my parents in London again. They were pleased to see that I had no crate with me. I was vague when they enquired as to its fate. Yet, approaching the little house a few weeks later, I saw a large and familiar object standing outside. The crate had returned!  I turned around and headed for the hardware store, not simply to buy tarpaulins but also to delay the inevitable confrontation with my parents. They soon made it very clear to me that, while I was welcome to stay, the crate must go. The answer to my problem was supplied by the Guy Fawkes' Day celebration that the neighborhood was about to hold.

Guy Fawkes bonfire

A large bonfire had already been built, but we placed the crate on top of the bonfire and we sat the effigy of Guy on the crate. What a bonfire it turned out to be, burning late into the night! The crate was 3 years old when it was cremated thus. It had lived a short but adventurous life.  It knew what it was to be unloved and unwanted. Yet it had its final moment of glory.

This piece, written by Bob, was originally posted on our website on November 9, 2008.

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