Lewes bonfire mayhem

Trip Start Nov 05, 2009
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Trip End Nov 05, 2009


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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Thursday, November 5, 2009

As I recoiled from the blast and emptied my pint onto my head I realised with a single heart palpitation I would have to toughen up if I wanted to get through the chaos that lay before me.

I was outside a pub next to Lewes train station. It was the 5th of November and a VERY large banger had just exploded next to my left foot.

My dignity was now dribbling down a drain with my beverage and as the remainder of my warm cider cascaded down my face I spied a man in a brightly coloured Zulu warrior's headdress laughing hard, pointing at me and shouting: 'Did you see that guy? That was brilliant!’

It’s not often a man wearing a Zulu warrior’s headdress gets to laugh and point, especially in East Sussex on a Thursday night. But then it’s not often a thirty-foot effigy of the Pope can be reduced to a puff of smoke by a devastating explosion that’s met not with gasps, tuts and liberal boos but cheers, whoops and exuberant applause.

You see, Lewes is not an ordinary town. It may look like it on the surface – quaint medieval streets and Saxon twittens twisting and turning through Georgian architecture, all nestling in a nook of the South Downs – but it’s not.

The political and religious tug of war that shook England to its core in the 16th century brought particular misery and strife to Lewes. During Mary I’s notoriously violent promotion of Catholicism (1553-1558) 17 Protestant Lewes men were put into barrels and burnt to death on the high street.

Then, of course, there was the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 - from which the anniversary of bonfire night comes – a Catholic conspiracy of such magnitude that parallels can be drawn with it and 9/11.

Smoldering beneath Lewes’s deceptively normal exterior is a part of England’s history, a part of England’s identity, long since consigned to dusty books. Every November 5th in Lewes this history comes to life, offering a rare glimpse into England’s past.

It was on the high street I found myself now, almost 450 years after the 17 Lewes men met their cruel fate. There are no less than seven bonfire societies in the town and each – Cliffe, Commercial Square, Lewes Borough, Nevill Juvenile, Southover, South Street, and Waterloo – spends 364 days of the year planning and preparing for the big night. Each bonfire society has two ‘pioneer fronts’ (themed costumes) and it is clear no expense is spared for any. My Zulu warrior friend was part of Lewes Borough’s first pioneer front (its second was Tudor ladies and gentlemen). Vikings front Cliffe and North American Indians head up Commercial Square.

Throngs of excited spectators lined the road, many on tip-toe, as procession after procession marched through to the sound of trumpets and drums – every participant wielding a fiery torch. Seventeen flaming crosses bobbed above the crowd, solemnly making their annual pilgrimage in commemoration of the 17 Lewes men persecuted because of their religion. People sat in the glow of first floor windows overlooking the festivities. One woman was casually eating her dinner, looking down on the pyromania with something bordering on boredom.

As we shuffled our way through the dense crowds ("I hope you’re not planning on staying there, mate" x4) towards the war memorial at the bottom of the high street it began to dawn on me just how inescapably and unashamedly anti-Catholic the whole event is. I obviously had an idea of what to expect before arriving, but it’s only when you see it up close and personal that the mind-boggling political incorrectness begins to hit home. Lewes bonfire night is a throw back; an anarchic anachronism. The whole country celebrates November 5th, but no other town can claim to be as bound to its roots as Lewes.

Huge banners reading ‘No Popery’ are displayed with pride. Later on in the evening, at one of the seven bonfire sites, a giant effigy of the Pope will be obliterated with explosives to the sound of cheers and laughs. The anti-Catholicism is entwined tightly with a sense of national pride and identity. At the war memorial the societies took it in turns to hold a remembrance service for those who fell in the World Wars. Giant placards of poppies, studded with fizzing fireworks, were held high as we all observed a minute’s silence. The irony of seeing poppies – the symbol for the men who died trying to prevent fascism and bigotry – and ‘No Popery' banners side by side was striking. There are also effigies of more contemporary unpopular figures that are carted through the streets in mockery. The bankers had their turn this year (symbolised by a fat cat) as did disgraced Jacquie Smith, holding a massive cheque with an equally massive sum. All would finish the night as smoke and ashes. Previous years have seen Osama Bin Laden, Condoleezza Rice and gypsy caravans consigned to the flames.

After the last service at the memorial all the different societies began making their way out to the different fire sites on the peripheries of town. We followed a horde of people to a field that was already packed by the time we got there. The bonfire - not yet lit – was enormous; a colossal bulk of dark green that on first glance looked like a giant shrub. Before long a line of people began trudging into the field, launching their burning torches onto the fire as they went past. The bonfire was soon a raging inferno.

Then came the fireworks. My God they were spectacular. There were three men, all costumed, standing on a platform controlling the display - like crazy conductors; masters of the fire. A constant stream of fireworks hurtled towards them from zealous spectators. Most public firework displays are impressive - compared, that is, with the rubbish you set off in your garden, bought from dodgy retailers - but this one raised the bar to new altitudes. It was relentlessly awesome. I felt like a child again - wide eyed, jaw brushing my knees, drunk on a cocktail of fire, colour and noise (and Stella Artois).

The whole night was brilliant. Absolutely superb. Was I bothered by the anti-Catholicism? That depends which voice in my head you ask. But I’m not going to pass judgment here, even though I was christened a Catholic. Parallels can be drawn with the fox hunting ban (not that I want to prise open that can of worms): the battle between history/tradition/heritage and modern day sensitivities. There are some that have called for Lewes bonfire to be banned – or at least toned down. I just can’t see that happening – well, not anytime soon. Lewes’s MP, Norman Baker, said the word bonfire goes through the town as if it were a stick of rock. I couldn’t put it better myself.
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Tony Jackman on

I didn't c u up there bro ive been the last 3 years in a row love them banggers they r well loud lol

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