Bonfire night (part one)


Have you ever turned up to a party and found everyone there wearing outlandish fancy dress and all seeming to know each other while you stand alone at the bar, nursing a drink?

(no, me neither, but please imagine the scene if you will)

For that is a little how it feels to be a new(ish) resident of Lewes as November 5th approaches.

For those who don’t know – which probably means just about all my old friends in Australia – the quaint and genteel country town of Lewes has a dark side to it.

Whilst the rest of the UK may spend Guy Fawkes night at a modest community fireworks display or even resort to lighting up a few Catherine Wheels, Roman Candles and Sparklers in the back garden, the Lewesians do things on a grand scale.

So large are the celebrations that shops in Lewes are boarded up, roads are closed and the population of the town swells dramatically to witness the mayhem as processions parade through the streets, brandishing burning torches and throwing fire crackers.

(By the sound of things, anyone involved in the Health & Safety industry would be well advised to give Lewes a wide berth on this particular night – “excuse me sir, are those officially approved safety matches you are using to light that giant 30 foot effigy?”)

Indeed, according to Wikipedia, little old Lewes is actually also known as the Bonfire capital of the world, no less.

Although I visited Lewes on many occasions before settling back here earlier this year, my previous trips have never coincided with Bonfire night, so next week will be my first direct experience and I am looking forward to it with genuine fascination.

But in the meantime, here are a few things I have managed to glean via osmosis.

Firstly, the town is divided into seven bonfire societies, all with their own geographic area of town to cater for, with their own bonfire site and with their own stripy uniforms.

These uniforms are apparently based on old smugglers costumes, but I must admit that the first time I saw them ‘en masse’ at a fund raising event, I was more reminded of the children’s character Where’s Wally. Sagely, I elected not to mention this opinion at the time.

Each society is staffed by various important office bearers who “organise things”, according to one particular office bearer I struck up a casual conversation with recently.

He was a little vague on precisely what this meant, but I assumed it was a broad-ranging mandate covering procession route planning, costume design, fund raising, effigy building and maybe even stick gathering for the ‘big fire’.

During this particular discussion, I was struck by two things – the zeal with which he spoke of his involvement (and the number of years he had been involved too – it seems that many Lewesians are virtually inducted to a bonfire society at birth) and also, by inference, my own ‘outsider’ status.

So closed did the inner sanctum of the society sound, that if he’d told me that they have a secret handshake, dress in ermine and gather monthly to howl at the moon, I’d have believed him.

But whilst I may not personally be wearing a costume,  marching, or letting off fireworks on the night, you can be sure that I will be out on the streets, notebook in hand, jotting down pithy observations for my Bonfire night (part two) post, to be released next week.

Assuming I don’t get burned at the stake, that is.


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