Sunday, 6 November 2016

The Lewes bonfires

Sam, Matt and I spent most of yesterday in the East Sussex town of Lewes, observing their famously anarchic bonfire night celebrations. They always celebrate on November the 5th itself, which yesterday fell on a Saturday.

We had brunch in Catford. We ordered the "Veggie breakfast - option four" which arrived on the biggest plates I've ever seen. Literally a whole heap of stodge.

We set off for the South Coast at just before midday. We tapped Meriel's address into the sat nav and were horrified when the predicted journey time flashed up as five hours. I immediately flew into a panic, wondering whether we ought to cancel our plans, and what kind of epic traffic jam was going to hold us up for that long. It turns out the sat nav had randomly decided to give us the journey time for a BIKE ride to Lewes! In that context, five hours felt like a surprisingly short period of time. We were, however, utterly relieved to discover it was only actually going to take an hour and a half.

We arrived in Lewes to find the town buzzing. I've seldom visited a place which seemed in such a state of high excitement. We had cups of tea with Hilary, Rupert and Jago before heading over to Meriel's for a lovely early supper of baked potatoes and grilled vegetables.

We walked into the town via a series of darkened alleyways. The whole town smelt of wood smoke and gunpowder, and we'd periodically find ourselves walking through little clouds of smoke created by be-costumed revellers lighting torches, stakes and wooden crosses in readiness for the processions.

The Lewes bonfire celebrations are organised by six separate societies, all of which represent a different area of town, and all of whom have different dress codes. The most controversial of the societies is called "Cliffe." The members of Cliffe seem to wear their hell-raising reputation as a veritable badge of honour. They're the people who famously burn an effigy of the pope every year and, because of this, are banned from parading in the grand procession. When they pass, the town goes a bit loopy. They walk, like rock stars, whilst those watching lob fire-crackers at their feet!

Meriel is a member of another society called "Southover," who, based on tonight, seem to have but one reputation, and that's for desperate tardiness! What the Southover posse have in their favour, however; is that they get to dress as pirates, monks or smugglers. And the pirates looked very fetching indeed. Meriel was incredibly sexy and sassy in her clobber, which was all plunging necklines and wench-like layered skirts. Fabulous!
To make matters slightly confusing, every society has its own procession (actually three processions), and all of them take place separately, on different routes and without any central document to let you know who is going to be where and at what time. As a result, the whole occasion sometimes feels a little like the performance of certain pieces of modern music, namely that those taking part are having a great deal more fun than those who have come to support them. "This is a local tradition for local people..."

The first processions of the night are subdued affairs, all linked to remembrance. We stopped for some time outside a church where a fabulous woman in a feather boa read a poem, and a gentleman delivered an impassioned speech about the war dead of two world wars which was brilliant, yet utterly undermined by a sudden gear-shift into the land of Jesus. "God knew sacrifice because he gave up his son for us etc." I don't buy it. Having spent much of the old testament demanding other fathers give up their children as sacrifice, he didn't have a leg to stand on. And if you believe that Jesus was the son of God, surely God, by handing him over to the braying mob was simply saying, "I want you to spend more time back home with me, son!" I think it's deeply insulting and somewhat grotesque to try to compare the deep sacrifice that a generation of innocent young men made for their countries in the First World War with a bible story! I struggle bitterly with the idea of remembrance being linked to religion. One could argue that an atheist giving up his life for his country is a far braver act than a religious person doing the same thing, safe in the knowledge that he's off to a better place. Furthermore, all evidence suggests that there was a dramatic decrease in religious activity in the First World War. The numbers attending front line services literally disintegrated. Sadly, young Tommy felt he was already living in hell, and hearing that God was on his side, simply rubbed salt into an already very open wound.

That said, the Lewes celebrations, though seeming deeply Pagan, are actually there to commemorate the deaths of a set of Protestant Martyrs at the hands of Catholics. Setting fire to an effigy of the pope, therefore is an act of religious defiance and camaraderie, so my struggling with religious content was maybe a little churlish.

Furthermore, once the bloke has stopped shaking his metaphorical tambourine, the moment was able to return to being moving, especially when they set fire to a number of giant poppies whilst a band sputtered its way through Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. There were some very well-thought through, more surprising touches as well. The band played Auld Lang Sine whilst two of the marchers sang that famous World War One soldier chant, "we're 'ere because we're 'ere because we're 'ere..." encouraging us all to join in. There was something so left-field and cheeky, yet deeply connecting about the moment. I felt a genuine sense of one-ness with the Tommies we were honouring. Moving too was the cornet rendition of the Last Post, whilst in the distance, bagpipes, brass bands and screams and cries mixed with hundreds of fireworks, echoeing around the town like a ghostly battle on a not-so-distant front line.

The processions themselves are extraordinary. Scores of people hold huge flaming torches as they march, and others pull metal barrels along the ground which make a terrifying grinding sound whilst spraying embers onto the Tarmac of the streets which end up looking like mystical star constellations.

The processions are watched by scores of people. Even draconian street closures "until 2am" and the much-loathed South East rail's decision to cancel all trains into the town on this, its most important day, weren't able to stop people from attending. Many were crammed into windows overlooking the streets. More were balanced perilously on ledges, telephone boxes, the backs of benches, up trees and lampposts. It's a magical atmosphere. Pop-up stalls sell burgers, beer, chips, and all the other stuff you want to eat on a cold November night. And man was it cold!

I took a thermos flask of tea. I felt very smug. Sam had brought whiskey, which Meriel decanted into a bag which looked suspiciously like a catheter. It was whilst I poured my first cup of the golden nectar (tea, not whiskey) that the first fire cracker was thrown at my feet. When one lands, you get about two seconds before the most awful ear-splitting sound. Matt, standing next to me, saw the thing landing next to me, and started stammering, "Ben, there's a... there's a..." BANG! I'm proud to say that I didn't spill the tea, but Jesus Christ it shocked me! Fortunately Meriel, aware of the tradition, had found us some ear plugs, which immediately went in. A composer cannot mess about with anything which might effect his hearing. Even short term!

We left Meriel, who was preparing herself to march in the main procession and stationed ourselves at the bottom of the Main Street, somewhere near the river, to watch the various different societies marching past. Each society has its own "fire pit" where they burn their own giant effigy of someone - either in deference to them, or as an act of defiance. The effigies are enormous. Fifteen feet tall, perhaps bigger, and they are carried through the streets as part of the processions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, two societies had chosen to burn Donald Trump, and, as he passed, boos rang out. I'm proud to say that Meriel's crew burned the ghastly Theresa May and the simperingly vulgar Boris Johnson as a finger up to Brexit. Let the Daily Mail call them the enemies of the people. I would have personally burned them on a bonfire consisting of every copy of that particular newspaper, and probably every one of its ghastly, fascist readers. If you're reading this blog and you read the Daily Mail and you're offended by these comments. Good.

It was whilst we waited for the various societies to pass that the evening started to wear a little thin, primarily because there was a genuine sense that no one had a clue what was going on. Anarchy is one thing, but it's surely exciting for those processing to have a crowd to cheer them on, and, at a certain point, when we still hadn't seen Meriel's society, the marching stopped, the crowds dispersed and all the stewards on the streets, when asked, told us "the main procession is over" (apparently the "main one" was Cliffe) and that they didn't know if any more processions were coming through. We instantly got into a panic. Perhaps Southover had changed their route? Perhaps we'd missed them and would therefore be missing their fireworks display. We only had the Southover programme, which had very vague timings, and no map to show us where the streets they said they were marching along actually were. To make matters worse, because each society randomly has its own programme, there was no sense of the order in which societies were marching.

At this point, two young Indian men came over to us and asked us what on earth was going on. "Are you celebrating winning the war?" They asked. (They know the Brits too well!) We floundered. Every thing we said sounded ludicrous. Try explaining all of the above to someone who isn't British!

We walked, at speed, up a seemingly deserted High Street trying to find Southover, but could find no sign of them, so immediately took ourselves to the field where Southover were due to have their bonfire and fireworks display. We joined a group of very cold, very confused and increasingly angry people. We could tell that all the other societies were already having their displays. We could see giant rockets exploding over the trees in different parts of town. Our feet froze, and collectively, five hundred or so people lost the will to live. I spoke to the woman whom I'd handed my ticket to and asked if the procession had arrived, "what procession?" She said. "The Southover procession." She looked blankly: "quite a lot of people have arrived." She said. "A big group arrived earlier." "Were they wearing costumes, and carrying a giant effigy and hundreds of burning crosses?" "No." It was very odd to discover that the officials knew almost less than we did!

It turns out that Southover, and one other society had been held up at the start of their march by the police who were arresting scores of people. If that happens, it's vital to let the police and stewards in other parts of town know what's going on, so that the crowds can be patient. It's about managing expectations...

Sadly what actually happened was that the crowd at the fire side turned sarcastic and then downright nasty. By the time members of the society turned up, there was booing, and jeering. We'd waited in the damp and cold for the best part of two hours, and noticed all the other displays taking place. One woman looked longingly at the fireworks bursting a mile away and said wistfully, "all those other people having fun..."

Instead of getting on with it, the Southover lot arrived and started throwing firecrackers into a dustbin. A middle aged woman turned to everyone around her, "all they're doing is lobbing things into that dustbin." A man shouted out, "you need to aim for the sky!"

Eventually, a somewhat bedraggled and sad-looking parade of people arrived. I think they'd had the love for the occasion kicked out of them by marching along empty streets, and were completely perplexed by the somewhat hostile response they were getting at this, the great climax to their year of planning. A group of drummers walked passed and the crowd angrily shouted "drum, you bastards" - desperate for them to give us a sense of the pageantry we'd come to witness. When they finally did start drumming (heaven knows why they weren't already) the crowd started shouting, "now drum faster..." It was a sorry affair.

At that point, a man dressed as the pope appeared with two people dressed as acolytes of some description and they stood on a scaffolding platform whilst all the members of the society throw firecrackers at them... Over an interminably long period of time. It was fun for a while. The stakes are high. The papal trio were literally sitting ducks, dodging balls of fire, but the crowd was damp and fed up and we just wanted to go home. And, yet again, it felt like we were watching something which was for the benefit of the members, and not for those of us who'd paid £5 to see something special. And then the fireworks happened. They were all coming from behind a set of trees, so quite a number were obscured by a darkened silhouette. They lasted all of five minutes, the crowd stood, waiting for more. None came. And then people headed home. A bit nonplussed, really.

It was a sad end to what, with a little more planning and communication could have been the most magical evening.

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