This is not a protest

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My stroll around York today led to a serendipitous pint at the Guy Fawkes Inn, birthplace of the infamous anti-establishmentarian and the only establishment in the city still illuminated by gas lamp.

The subdued Victorian lighting lends the bar an antiquated charm. The walls are painted black to hide the staining haloes of accumulated soot around the forged iron filaments, and in the corners of the rooms stands medieval armour (including a complete suit that looks unnervingly like a Slayer of the Black Fortress from the fantasy world of Krull).

The barman’s Ghost Ale took the edge off the November chill, and as I sipped the ethereal brew I spotted a familiar mask behind the pumps hanging beside a sign advertising its sale. Its theatrical features have become as well known to the public as Fawkes must have been with his own reflection. Operatic and concealing, the bleached skin, half-shut eyes, pencil beard and cryptic smile hint at its empowering dual aspect, simultaneously identifying with defiance and mirroring the anonymity of the faceless corporations it is often worn to oppose.

The mask became popular following the 2006 film V for Vendetta but the idea for it first appeared in Alan Moore’s comic of the same name, after the artist David Lloyd suggested it was befitting of the one-man-against-the-state narrative, written during a time of riotous political upheaval in 1980s Thatcherite Britain. It has since become emblematic of resistance in all its forms, from the Anonymous hacker group to the Occupy Movement and 2011’s Arab Spring (the so-called ‘revolutionary mask’ is still banned in three Arab states).

Fawkes was more politically observant than many contemporary protestors, but no less revolutionary in his aims. The 17th century Englishman was a monarchist who sought to replace a Protestant king with a Catholic queen in an era when Europe was split along religious lines, and when any sign of allegiance with Rome or the Pope could result in imprisonment or death. In our time of mutant capitalism when competitive level-pegging has all but dissolved, multinational banks have taken the place of an untouchable monarchy beyond the reach of state restraint. The political masks have changed, yet the cloying oppressions remain.

As a piece of movie tie-in merchandise the Fawkes mask has proved a tidy little earner for Time Warner, one of the largest media corporations on the planet. I handed over my money in exchange for the ashen facade and was hyper-aware of my neutralising transaction — at once self-effacing and self-defeating in its anti-globalist logic.

Yet I couldn’t help recall the final strip in Moore’s comic — a depressed and demotivated populace, energised by the actions of a costumed vigilante, marching on an oppressive government in collective resistance — and briefly imagined my fellow patrons, once sallow-looking and placated, suddenly sat up straight and all wearing the same despicable smile.

I stepped outside for my obligatory November fifth photo and winced at the contrasting glare of electric street lights. In Moore’s story, the public’s movements are watched by CCTV as the underground resistance secretly hacks a centralised totalitarian computer network. I donned the mask and posed beside the pub window, wondering if I had been tagged before my picture had even been exposed.

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