We so enjoyed Nigel Jones’s
"http://www.spectator.co.uk/books/blog/7354798/the-building-of-our-history.thtml">last contribution to Coffee House that we thought we’d invite him back to describe the rather eccentric
Bonfire Night celebrations in Lewes…
Here in Lewes near the Sussex coast we were awoken this morning at 6am by a flash in the sky followed by an ear-splitting explosion. The shock waves reverbrated around the South Downs that cup the
town in chalky hands, setting off barking dogs and car alarms. On any other day I would have feared that an incoming airliner had fallen short of the Gatwick runway. But this is November 5th
– Guy Fawkes day, or as we call it here simply "Bonfire". In Lewes, you see, we take Guy Fawkes and his plot to blow up the entire Establishment seriously. Very seriously indeed.
Across the centuries since the Gunpowder Plot was foiled in 1605, its failure has been celebrated around the country with firework displays, as Guy himself suffered capital punishment for his
treason all over again by being burnt in effigy on a million bonfires. (In historical fact he was racked in the Tower and then hanged rather than burnt, but let that pass). Although the traditional
private bonfire parties in back gardens have dwindled recently, with family fireworks being edged out by big but bland municipal displays, here in Lewes – and in nearby Sussex towns and
villages – it has been a different story. For us, Bonfire, or "the Fifth", is the main event of our year.
As autumn turns towards winter, our town comes alive with people – all called, regardless of gender, "Bonfire Boys" – attired in striped, smuggler-style jerseys jingling
collecting tins for donations to pay the considerable cost of staging six separate gigantic bonfires at strategic "firesites" surrounding the town. These are accompanied by truly
spectacular computer-controlled rocket displays which turn the Sussex skies into booming, crackling festivals of light for up to half an hour at a time. Before that, the narrow streets of little
old Lewes (population 16,000) are filled with some 3,000 members of six rival societies, watched by up to 80,000 out-of-town spectators, and variously disguised as Sussex smugglers, Roman
Centurions, Red Indians, Tudor maidens, American Civil War soldiers, monks, and other exotic historical figures.
As they parade around the town, oblivious to the Health and Safety risks, the marchers carry burning torches and huge blazing crosses, and fling deafeningly loud bangers, known as "crow
scarers" or "Rookies", at the feet of unsuspecting onlookers. The night climaxes with firework-filled effigies – ranging from 16th century Popes to unpopular contemporary
personalities like Tony Blair or Osama Bin Laden or an officious local Police Chief who may have tried to ban or curb the festivities – being cast into the flames and an explosive, fiery end.
Whatever else it may be, no-one could accuse Bonfire of being politically correct. And ever since the 19th century when Bonfire caused a fully-fledged riot, the authorities have hated it. So what
is this strange primitive survival into our po-faced age all about?
Lewes Bonfire celebrates and comemmorates not only the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, but an even more painful local event: the agonising burning alive in Lewes town centre of seventeen men and
women known as the Protestant martyrs in the reign of Bloody Mary in the 1550s. Mary, a bitter bigot, tried to extirpate Protestant heresy from her kingdom by burning some 300 Protestants –
ranging from Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to ordinary folk like the Lewes martyrs – but only succeeded in branding it more deeply into the hearts of her people, along with an abiding fear and
hatred for her faith that led some Catholic fanatics, half a century later, to attempt to overthrow the Protestant ascendancy with one big bang, in the form of barrels of gunpowder, reinforced with
iron bars for extra killing power, placed in the cellars beneath the palace of Westminster.
Over the centuries since, the two events – the burning of the Protestant martyrs and the foiling of the Gunpowder plot – became fused in Lewes, and the commemorations, however much they
originally resembled an Ulster Orange Order parade or even, with their burning crosses and weird costumes. a Ku Klux Klan rally in America’s deep South, evolved from a Protestant anti-Papist
provocation into a popular, almost pagan, folk festival which today has entirely shed its sectarian, indeed bigoted, religious roots. Think the Siena Palio or the Pamplona running of the bulls
Fiesta rather than East Belfast or Mississipi.
Although some of the unreconstructed celebrants in the Cliffe – largest and noisiest of the six Bonfire societies – still proclaim "No Popery" and Lewes’s Catholic clergy make
uncomfortable annual noises about "prejudice", I know pious Catholics who march on the Fifth and do so with gusto. And none of the thousands of mainly young people from around the world
who pile into the town to enjoy the show are itching to put their Papist neighbours to the torch. Bonfire today is a rare survival from a time when England really was Merrie. And that is what gets
up the disapprovingly twitching noses of our PC ruling elite.
Our masters, of course, have always disliked the idea of people having unregulated fun. Especially if the fun concerned emanates from the grass roots up. So they attempt to harness, organise, damp
down or otherwise blur native celebrations such as Bonfire Night into something without historical context or sense. These killjoys resemble Winston Smith, hero of Orwell’s grim dystopia 1984, who,
until his rebellion against Big Brother, worked in the Ministry of Truth – labouring to alter or falsify the past. The killjoys of today would like to blot Guy Fawkes out of our national
story altogether, and one can see why. For Fawkes was a terrorist: a fanatic with a strong religious agenda who thought it acceptable to blast hundreds of his fellow Englishmen – including
more moderate fellow Catholics – into oblivion so he could foist his extremist version of his faith onto his unwilling fellow citizens. Does this ring any bells?
Lewes, where Tom Paine first proclaimed his rebel doctrines against King and Clergy in the late 18th century, has long prided itself on its quirky, radical, non-conformist traditions. In its modern
incarnation this means, paradoxically, that it is as conformist as hell to today’s presiding ethos. What Orwell called our "smelly little orthodoxies". Lewes is painfully
"green", with a plethora of organic cafes, expensive fad shops, and increasingly a population of impeccably left-liberal Guardianistas known to Sussex born and bred folk as DFLs
("Down from London"ers). It proudly proclaims itself a "transition town" while being vaguely woolly about its final destination, is big on climate change, and even has its own
currency – the Lewes pound.
Bonfire fits rather uncomfortably into this picture (though the DFLs, awkwardly attempting to enter into the spirit of the thing, recently founded their own society). The festivities feel like a
fart in a particularly pious church; a belch at a stilted dinner party; a throwback to the days when the Lord of Misrule would lord it over the Court on just one day of the year. In a world where
everywhere seems much like everywhere else, long may it continue. Or, in the words of one of the antiquated Bonfire banners: "Success to the Bonfire Boys!"