November 6. The morning after the night before. Anyone unused to the extraordinary ritual of Bonfire in the County town of Lewes could be forgiven for thinking that nothing particularly unusual had taken place the previous evening.
Apart from neat piles of charred staves at the side of many roads, waiting to be collected, the streets are immaculate. All the rubbish and detritus that large crowds leave behind them – the firework cases, empty crisp packets, fluorescent plastic wands and paper coffee cups – have been swept away. While Lewes slept after the celebration of Guy Fawkes night, an army of cleaners and street sweepers descended in the early hours of the morning to restore the streets to a pristine condition.
This unsung army is just one element of the extraordinary organisational effort that goes into making one night of the year a unique event. Many other towns and communities across the country, especially in Sussex, hold their own firework displays and build bonfires, but only in Lewes is Bonfire a culture, burnt deep into the veins of the town’s history, involving hundreds of the townspeople in year-round activities. Almost as soon as the scent of burnt gunpowder has faded from the bonfire sites on the outskirts of town, the various societies are beginning to plan next year’s celebrations, fund-raising, creating new costumes to wear in the processions, and designing and constructing the gigantic ‘Enemy of Bonfire’ tableaux to be paraded through the streets.
A radical tradition
Bonfire culture taps into a tradition in Sussex of radicalism, of stubborn bloody-mindedness, of anti-authoritarianism, expressed in the old Sussex motto, ‘We Wunt Be Druv’ which goes back centuries. St Augustine, when he landed on the shores of Kent to bring Roman Christianity to the British, apparently decided to avoid Sussex, as the population was rumoured to be too heathen for any hope of salvation. The same spirit of contrariness, many centuries later, imbued those Protestant martyrs who were burnt at the stake in Lewes in 1556 and 1557 for opposing the Marian Counter-Reformation, their stand of defiance still commemorated today in the seventeen burning crosses carried in the bonfire procession. Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man (1791) and a notorious opposer of unjust authority, is proudly claimed by Lewes, although he was only resident in the town for six years.
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That spirit of bloody-mindedness, a refusal to allow the tradition and culture of Bonfire to be co-opted by outsiders, is reflected in a wonderful story involving the Ulster politician and vilifier of Roman Catholicism, the Reverend Ian Paisley. Spotting an opportunity to fan the flames of religious conflict, he visited the town in 1981 to hand out anti-Catholic leaflets to the bonfire crowds. The following year his effigy was paraded through the streets of the town as an Enemy of Bonfire, and gleefully burnt.
A dark side?
It’s easy for outsiders (or ‘Down From Londoners – DFLs – as many are called) to interpret some Bonfire traditions as discriminatory or racist, but the reality can be more complicated, as the Paisley story demonstrates. There have undoubtedly been darker incidents even in the recent past – witness the burning of a gipsy caravan at Firle bonfire in 2003 – but the bonfire societies claim that the ritual burning of the Pope, and the ‘No Popery’ banners carried in the processions, are reflective of tradition and not of current attitudes. That might be a little difficult to believe if you are a Roman Catholic watching a stream of flaming torches flowing down the High Street behind an image of the Pope and hearing chants of ‘Burn him, burn him’. Eerily reminiscent of many mob rampages in the past.
And mob rampages associated with Bonfire there certainly have been in Lewes, particularly during the 19th century. The smugglers’ costumes of striped jumpers and blackened faces apparently dates from the early 1800s, when sailors returning from the Napoleonic wars, often finding themselves without work and starving, took part in riots on bonfire night, blackening their faces so that they wouldn’t be recognised. It was dangerous to hold the position of magistrate in the town: several were assaulted by the bonfire boys when they attempted to stop the running of tar barrels through the town or to close down the celebrations entirely. The riot act was read on at least one occasion from the steps of the Magistrates’ Court and soldiers brought in to disperse the crowd.
The tension between authority and Bonfire continues to the present day, sometimes erupting in disputes between the police and the Bonfire Council about safe crowd-handling and road barriers at the event. ‘Safety first’ was certainly not an issue in 1902 when, as Arthur Beckett observed:
“The Saturnalia is no fit spectacle for a woman to witness from any place outside the walls of a house, for every petticoat – and there are not a few – attracts a storm of fiery serpents, and frequently the night is filled with sudden shrieks of frightened females, the victims of unwelcome attention on the part of the firework throwing Bonfire Boy.”
The tradition continues
Generations of Lewesians have been involved with Bonfire, helping to raise enormous sums for charity, proudly wearing costumes in the processions that have been passed from one generation to the next, ‘keeping the flame alive’. For those involved, Bonfire is a passion, an essential part of their life, a deep bond with others in the community. Sometimes insular, sometimes infuriatingly pig-headed, nevertheless the culture and traditions of Bonfire have played an enormously positive role in safeguarding the character of a town that could otherwise, like so many in Sussex, have succumbed to blandness and gentrification.