Safe but sorry
Timandra Harkness on why the sparks have stopped flying at the famous Lewes bonfire
Since my mother moved to Sussex, I have spent every bonfire night in Lewes, where the whole town dresses up in costume for torchlit processions before marching off to their respective Bonfire Society's bonfire and firework display. Last year I was commissioned to write a travel piece about the event for a national newspaper, but the Bonfire Council told me 'we'd much rather you didn't. We've already got a crowd we can hardly control'. Bang went my article (no pun intended), as all the local authorities seemed determined to put people off and keep attendance numbers low. The information phoneline, and even signs in local stations, repeated the message: 'Stay away! You won't like it! It's far too crowded and noisy.'
Defying all official fears for my health and stress levels, I went anyway, to find it a sadly anaemic version of its former self. Only four years before, hordes of adults and children lined the narrow streets, managing by their own devices to stay out of the way of the thousands of flaming, paraffin-soaked torches turning the streets to rivers of fire, and the ubiquitous bangers thrown indiscriminately underfoot. Last year, thin crowds stood dutifully behind steel barriers, obeying the voice of the loudspeaker that told us not to move at regular intervals. 'Have you noticed', I asked my companions, 'that all the loudspeaker messages start with "Don't"?'. 'No', came the answer: 'sometimes they say "Stay where you are!".' Lampposts everywhere bore safety notices, consisting mainly of the words 'Be careful'. Police wearing protective goggles stopped us moving up and down the pavements and, worst of all, there were no bangers!
Just as we were considering an early departure in search of mulled wine, along came the Cliffe Bonfire Society, the rebels, the nonconformists, who resigned from the Bonfire Council over the right to continue burning the pope's effigy (finally rejoining in 1972 - but still featuring the pope). The Cliffe society, at least, was still throwing bangers around, and the atmosphere livened up noticeably. As usual, it had the best effigies stuffed with fireworks for later detonation - alongside Pope Paul V, a huge Bill Clinton brandished a missile from his trouser region, fiddling with a jar of Viagra, atop a truck with the caption 'In Gob We Thrust' (think back to 1998...). Every year, a different 'enemy of bonfire', selected by the society, suffers the same fate - previous likenesses have included a member of the society who had made off with the moneybox the year before!
A word on the pope - despite the banners and t-shirts reading 'No Popery', and the relish with which the pope is ignited, this is clearly nothing to do with persecuting Catholics. Yes, the bonfire originated as an anti-Catholic carnival in 1606 with the first anniversary of Guy Fawkes' failed gunpowder plot against the Protestant King James and his parliament, and in Lewes makes particular reference to 17 Protestants burned at the stake during the reign of Queen Mary. The real point of the bonfire celebrations, though, is summed up in Cliffe's official programme: 'we process through the streets to prove our freedom.' Ignore all the following stuff: '...to remember the 17 Protestant martyrs burned at the stake...to remember the dead of two World Wars, and to show that religious intolerance is a thing of the past.' The history of the Lewes bonfires is one of running battles between the 'bonfire boys' and special constables.
Now, of course, anti-popism is no longer acceptable, but Cliffe is not giving up its fun that easily. A Roman Catholic bishop recently protested about the burning, to be told, 'We don't burn the pope. He explodes'. Freedom to drag an exploding pope through the town - not that central to our civil liberties, you might think, just a bit of rowdy fun with no great social significance. In that case, I would reply, why are they so keen to control every aspect of it, eliminating most of the danger and nearly all of the fun? Leave the bonfire boys alone. Anybody without the common sense not to step on a banger is free to stay away.
Back to the celebrations - after hours of marching around the town, drinking and waving flambeaux, all the bonfire societies head off to separate fields for fires and firework displays. Apparently, even their right to organise their own firework display is under threat from proposed legislation, but last year we enjoyed one display close up and four more at a distance, before rolling back to the station for the train home. But the police protection had not ended when the bonfires burnt out - eight of them piled into our carriage to drag away a youth for the dangerous act of holding an unlit cigarette. Anybody who protested was threatened with removal for swearing - a new safety rule against inflammatory language, I expect.
As we trundled off into the night, I fervently hoped that 1999's 'enemies of bonfire' would be a council safety officer and a policeman - in safety goggles, of course. But I'm afraid I won't be going to find out. Lewes may be safer this November, but for me all the spark has gone out of it.
Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999