Saturday, 7 November 2009

A flaming good time

Question. Where can you see, all in one place, Vikings, smugglers, Siamese dancers, a samba band, and a bunch of Zulu warriors? Disneyland? Wrong, I’m afraid. What if you add a torchlit procession complete with fiery crosses, the burning of a Pope, some blazing tar barrels and a dyslexic pirate? The set of some British low-budget cult film? Wrong again. In italics. All these curious characters and props can be seen every year at the bonfire night celebrations in Lewes, the county town of East Sussex. And it was to Lewes, despite the exhortations of the local law enforcement agencies that ‘outsiders’ should stay away, that my family and I, and several thousand other curious visitors betook ourselves on November the fifth.

When, on the 5th November 1605, the ‘Popish Plot’ to kill King James and his parliament was discovered, the day was declared to be ‘a holiday for ever in thankfulness to God for the deliverance and detestation of the Papists’. Officially, the day was celebrated with a church service of thanksgiving, but in the seventeenth century and earlier it was traditional to mark significant events with the lighting of bonfires, so it is quite likely that an ad-hoc bonfire party was held in Lewes, as well as many other towns and villages, on the 5th of November 1606. Now, you have to bear in mind that, in the absence of councils, police, health and safety officers and a whole host of EU regulations, these celebrations were nothing like the well-ordered, all-ticket affairs we have now, and were probably more like drunken riots. Little wonder, then, that Oliver Cromwell sought to ban these and all other similar ‘celebrations’ when he came to power.

When Charles the Second ascended the throne, Cromwell’s ban was rescinded, and bonfire celebrations in Lewes resumed and continued haphazardly until the 1820s, when semi-organised groups of ‘Bonfire Boys’ lit fires and set off fireworks, but these were still riotous affairs. In 1838 a magistrate who remonstrated with the boys was unceremoniously chucked into the River Ouse, and in 1847 a contingent of a hundred Metropolitan Police officers were drafted in to prevent disorder, the riot act was read and a good number of police officers were injured in the ensuing fight with the ‘boys’.

It was clear that this sort of thing couldn’t carry on. And so it was that, in 1853, the Cliffe and Town (now Lewes Borough) Bonfire Societies were established. Other societies were established later, and the night took on a rather more orderly air. On the night of the fifth, these societies, whose members wear amazing and elaborate costumes, march through the town carrying flaming torches (and fiery crosses in memory of Lewes’ Protestant martyrs), throwing firecrackers around, and throwing blazing tar barrels into the Ouse. The Cliffe Society displays flaming banners, proclaiming ‘No Popery’ (I’m amazed some over-zealous individual hasn’t tried to ban this!) and ‘We Wunt be Druv’, reflecting the determination of Sussex people not to be pushed around by the self-appointed or over-zealous individuals aforesaid. According to one very nice lady to whom I spoke, there is intense rivalry between the societies. I’m afraid I put my ‘London head’ on at this point, suspecting all manner of incidents such as drive-by shootings, kidnaps and knee-cappings. I suspect, however, that a little good-natured ribbing about the merits of their respective societies is as far as it goes! And here's a small aside...I managed to spot, and greet, a fellow Twitter user (@_Flik_) who was part of the South Street procession. Who says social networking is a waste of time?

One of the high points of the evening is the burning of effigies. Of course, Guido Fawkes and Pope Paul the Fifth are regulars. But each year the societies also choose a number of ’hate’ figures who are also consigned to the flames. This year, they torched a very realistic effigy of former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and some other politician, sailing in a gravy boat with a pig for company. The banking fraternity, symbolised by a massive Fat Cat, was given similar treatment.

I have to say that Bonfire was a most amazing night out. It’s the type of festival I thought had been legislated out of existence years ago, but, thankfully, it has survived. Despite the presence of all those flaming torches, bonfires and fireworks, there were (as far as I’m aware) no major incidents or injuries. I saw no violence, no disorder, and the police were at their unobtrusive best in letting everyone get on with enjoying themselves. I’m pretty sure the worst casualties were (like me) just a little over-zealous with the local brew.

What I’m going to say now is likely to upset both police and council…don’t listen to their pleas for you to stay away! If you find yourself anywhere near Lewes on the next November the fifth, do yourself a favour and trundle along to the Bonfire celebrations. I guarantee you an amazing experience. I’ll be there, so tap me on the shoulder and I’ll buy you a pint of Harvey’s Bonfire Boy. Maybe even two pints.

Oh, I nearly forgot about the dyslexic pirate. He had a carrot on his shoulder...

11 comments:

willow said...

Um, about that dyslexic pirate, I'm married to him.

chris hale said...

Willow - seriously? Is it Long John Sliver or Blackbread?

Madame DeFarge said...

It does all seem jolly fun down there in Sussex. Nothing so exciting in Derbyshire. And on what local brew were you overindulgent?

chris hale said...

MDF - I'm sure Derbyshire is very exciting indeed! Oh...the beer...Harvey's Old Ale and Bonfire Boy. Do feel free to look me up if your forays bring you this far South. The offer of a drink still stands!

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I'd love a giraffe-sized glass of one of those brews, Chris! So we'll have to bring the Tours bus down to Lewes next year!

chris hale said...

Raph - I'm sure we could find a local glass-blower willing to fashion such a vessel. And you'd have no trouble seeing over the heads of the crowd!

Derrick said...

Hi Chris,

It's been a while since I was at a bonfire party. For years I have watched someone else's fireworks from a distance! Your talk of vikings and barrels of tar had me thinking of 'Up Helly Aa' in Shetland but we'll have to wait a couple of more months for that. Any chance of swapping the Bonfire Boys brew for a white wine?!

chris hale said...

Derrick - I would dearly love to see Up Helly Aa one day, but I fear it is unlikely. And, sadly, I'm struggling to get hold of Bonfire Boy at present as there seems to have been a run on sales!

JamaGenie said...

On this side of the Pond, we have fireworks to commemorate the 4th of July, but except for out-of-the way places the local constabulary won't bother with, we have *nothing* (nada, zip) to compare to your Bonfires Night. Not even close. I am soooooo jealous.

Oh My Goddess said...

We totally need to do that over here.

Sarah Palin needs to be effigied.

chris hale said...

JG - Don't be jealous...start your own bonfire tradition! BTW, I love your use of 'constabulary'. Just think how much more folksy the Los Angeles Constabulary sounds than LAPD!

OMG - I think you and JamaGenie need to get together! (Thinks) Only Sarah Palin??