Fireworks, parkin, sparklers, bonfires - we have one man to thank for the fun. But this year, of all years, we should remember who Guy Fawkes really was, says CHRIS TITLEY

OSAMA bin Laden and Guy Fawkes - two men separated by four centuries who share much in common. Both plotted mass murder of such scale and audacity that it would shock the world and change history. Both were fuelled by fanatical religious hatred. Both were part of a widespread network of aggrieved extremists who intended to spark a revolution. Both wore beards.

There are differences, of course. Bin Laden is the leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, whereas Fawkes was the explosives expert in the gunpowder plot: it was masterminded by Catholic rebel Robert Catesby. And - the most crucial distinction of all - Fawkes was foiled.

Today Osama bin Laden is the world's most wanted man, vilified as an evil-doer and pursued by an awesome artillery. No doubt Fawkes was similarly reviled after his arrest early on November 5, 1605. His agonising, State-inflicted death would suggest as much.

That fate reflected how much fear Fawkes and his cohorts had engendered. This was a time when a nervous Protestant king was attempting to persecute Catholics into submission. Fawkes was captured as he was about to commit one of the most recklessly bold crimes of that or any century. Had he set light to the fuse that led to the barrels of gunpowder, they would have exploded underneath King James at the very moment when he was opening Parliament in front of most of the Lords and the Commons.

It would have been a massacre, and have opened the way for a Catholic coup.

That is why we gather around bonfires and 'ooh' and 'ahh' at the pyrotechnic displays - to celebrate the day when the traitors' fireworks failed to go off. But has that motive been clouded by the smoke? Time distorts all things and it sometimes seems as if Bonfire Night has become a celebration of Fawkes the folk hero, rather than the capture of Fawkes the traitor.

Barlby resident John Rogers has noticed this too, and would like to clear up the confusion. He contacted the Evening Press to make a salient point: "With all the talk recently about anti-terrorism, may I remind all readers that Guy Fawkes was a terrorist almost 400 years ago."

The point is a salient one. Despite being a man hell-bent on murderous treason, Fawkes still has his supporters in his home town. He was even nominated for the award of York's Millennium Person of the Past, later won by pacifist Joseph Rowntree.

Fawkes' one-time school, St Peter's in Clifton, has an ambivalent attitude to its most notorious student. A former headmaster in the 1930s introduced the legendary ban on burning a Guy on the school bonfire, considering it an unseemly thing to do to an old boy. More recently a former pupil commented: "We are very fond of him here, but don't actually see him as a role model."

The city tourist trade takes a more definite view. It knows that Guy is good for business.

Kevin Pride is manager of the Guy Fawkes Tavern on High Petergate, York. Part of the building is purported to be the birthplace of Master Fawkes and the tourists flock to see it.

"If we had a pound every time the outside of the building was photographed, we wouldn't have to open the restaurant," he said.

The rooms are called things like the Bonfire Suite and the Gunpowder Room. And tourists demand to know so much about Guido that Kevin has prepared a leaflet on his life.

"Although," he adds, "it's not very good telling Americans what he tried to do with what's going on over there at the moment."

The Guy Fawkes Arms in Scotton, near Knaresborough, also trades on the rogue's bad name. Elaine McAvoy, who runs it with her mum Anne, was not drawn to the pub by its past associations, but by business sense. "We were looking for a profit-making pub."

She is well aware of the village's Fawkes connections. "He used to live in the village. It's the only place where we have documentary evidence of him actually living somewhere. There's none to place him at a particular location in York. His stepfather used to own the manor house here. That's where all the famous tunnels are."

The Guy Fawkes Arms also boasts The Conspirators Restaurant. Elaine has not noticed a surge in bookings for November 5 but that doesn't mean the pub's name fails to generate tourism revenue.

"We get quite a few people coming down asking us where he used to live."

So where does she stand on Guy Fawkes: a terrorist who deserves nothing but our contempt - or an anti-hero worth celebrating?

"I have no idea. It doesn't make any difference to me one way or another."

Scotton may have its claims, but it is York that will always be linked with Guy Fawkes in the public mind. Eminent city historian Hugh Murray recalls going to a cinema in Oxford on Bonfire Night in the Fifties. In between the films, an organist led a sing-a-long. Suddenly he struck up a tune and up on the screen, under the bouncing ball, came the words: "D'ya ken Guy Fawkes, from St Peter's, York."

Hugh is sure the link helps draw people to the city. But the reality, that Fawkes was a traitor intent on mass murder, is often forgotten; everyone "thinks he was a good bloke who went into Parliament to blow it up".

Current contempt for the House of Commons fuels this lionising of Fawkes. Kevin Pride, of the Guy Fawkes Tavern, puts it this way: "I think sometimes we could do with him now, to get rid of this lot big style."

Hugh can almost understand this attitude. "Politics today is so dreadful. It's all 'his master's voice' and people kept on-message by these pagers. There's no thinking for oneself among MPs."

Dissatisfaction with our rulers, added to the excitement of the November 5 story, has turned Fawkes into a figure often admired.

"Several centuries later, the details of the people get forgotten," Hugh says. "Even the story of these plotters, creeping about setting up explosives in the middle of the night, is turned into a Colditz-type daredevil adventure.

"The major purpose is forgotten, and that's the terrorism aspect."

Over the next few nights, when you're watching the fireworks shower sparks across the sky, spare a moment to remember, remember the fifth of November.

It was a frightening day in history - and one not entirely unlike September 11.

Updated: 11:43 Friday, November 02, 2001