Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Bonfire Night, Lewes

Well after the event, your weary correspondent wipes his brow. It is such a responsibility reporting on an essentially English fête to a wide, international audience.

Guy Fawkes Night, celebrated on the 5th November every year, commemorates the antics of one Guy Fawkes' attempt to blow up the the Houses of Parliament on the same date in 1605.

I, as a good Catholic of Irish descent, was informed by my grandmother, half-Burmese so she would know, when young that one of my ancestors was involved in the plot - a piece of personal history handed down to every individual who is a good Catholic of Irish descent and resident for most of their lives in the UK by every grandmother whether or not of Burmese ancestry.

Guy Fawkes Night is a celebration of the burning of Guy Fawkes, an Irish Catholic, at the stake; an occasion for much mirth and loud noises, and one, until recently, for strong anti-Papist strutting. Lewes, home town of Thomas Paine, author of Rights of Man, therefore, known for his extreme views regarding humanity, and someone to whom both the France and the USA are indebted for their present constitutions, reacted strongly to such a heritage by maintaining violent anti-Papist views long after the rest of the nation had grown-up.

(I can't download my pics of the event from my camera, so have posted this from the Daily Telegraph.)

Lewes is a venerable town, the capital town of East Sussex, and its inhabitants are very conscious of their antiquity. Most, too, are of a venerable age, and many have undergone several bypasses to allow them to maintain their hearts of oak attitudes. November the fifth is a day for them to let their hair down, or those who still have hair to let down.

Guy Fawkes Night in Lewes is a famed event. Your weary correspondent attended last Thursday, the first time he had done so since he moved to the coast ten years - I lie - eleven years ago. I am forced to wipe my brow again.

If I have this right, there are seven bonfire societies who maintain the traditions of the occasion. Keep that in mind as my report collapses into bewilderment.

The torch-lit occasion flickered between being that of a pagan festival, a memorial to the fallen of the wars, carnival, and a fancy dress party for the elite of the town.

The array of costumes was baffling: Greek hoplites rubbed shoulders with eighteen century courtesans, pirates exchanged pleasantries with matelots.

The sight of gangs of people marching through the streets bearing flaming torches is frightening. The only association one has with such images are of people bent on violence - perhaps I've watched too many Hammer Horror films.

It was very tightly organisated. Blazing fires in iron trundles were wheeled around the town and dropped at strategic points. Into these were dropped the torches collected from the gutters where they were deposited once expended. Sue, feeling the need to join in, reached for an abandoned torch and was immediately told off by a passing marcher. He, the fascist, was allowed to bear a torch because he, the fascist, was wearing the correct uniform.

Despite the organisation, there was, seemingly, a fear of riot. The last impression arose out of the number of riot police who stood around in aggressive poses with expressions that invited you to have a go if you think you're hard enough.

Lewes is determinedly middle-class. It is the county capital. So it is strange to see the strange contortions they, the inhabitants, go through to conform, on the one hand, and rebel, on the other. Invariably, their mutations require a target, as indicated, it was once the papists, nowadays, they create a caricature of some public personality to burn, usually political and more often than not an individual on the left of the spectrum, on whom they can vent their confusion.


Anonymous said...

What was the effigy they burned this year?


DOT said...

No idea. There were, reportedly, 40,000 visitors to the town and it could have been any one of them.

Girl On The Run said...

Come on, come on, come on you know you enjoyed it really....

DOT said...

Did I say I didn't? I was wearing my anthropological hat when writing this piece - set at a jaunty angle, naturally.

Girl On The Run said...

and I was wearing my jesters hat when I wrote that comment with my tongue set firmly in my cheek.

However,I did enjoy your post, it gave a more political and historical (and of course anthropological)slant on the event than in my own blog.