In Lewes, our closest town, Bonfire Night is the highlight of the year. As the biggest bonfire event in the UK (in the world?), it’s both crowded and dangerous (last year someone was hit in the chest with a stray rocket, while the Bonfire Council – there is indeed such a thing – invokes the doctrine volenti non fit injuria, which roughly translates as, ‘You’re on your own, mate.’)
The event takes the form of a series of processions through town, with seven Bonfire societies competing to have the best fireworks and effigies. Members of the parade carry flaming torches and hurl barrels of burning tar down the narrow, smoke-filled streets. It’s quite the spectacle. Imagine something like this, but with drums and costumes:
It’s also controversial. The event celebrates the protestant martyrs burned at the stake in the 16th century, which, before your eyes glaze over, means that it is outwardly – though not actually – anti-Catholic. Signs saying ‘No popery’ hang above the streets, while members of the procession carry burning crosses (this, with its KKK connotations, is more uncomfortable than any tongue-in-cheek anti-Catholic propaganda.)
Nonetheless the BBC has been rather sniffy about it, likening it to Northern Ireland. On hearing this, my initial reaction was to think how ridiculous they were being. Of course it’s not offensive – this is tradition, not bigotry – and, honestly, how po-faced can you be? Then it struck me that I sounded like one of those commenters on the Daily Mail Online who claim that the term ‘Paki’ is a harmless derivative of Pakistani and no more offensive than calling a Welshman a Taffy.
But I gave it more thought and again came to the conclusion that it wasn’t insulting. I mean, no one in Lewes really dislikes Catholics, and what’s history but a game of goodies and baddies? And given that a good 500 years have passed since all this kicked off, it’s safe to say no one still bears a grudge.
So what you’ve got in the end – unlike in Northern Ireland – isn’t a political statement, but a charming and slightly nerdy reenactment. It’s a lot of fun, anyway. I wish I could have gone, but it’s not the sort of place you can take a two-year-old and finding a babysitter is a bitch. I got my Mum to take some pictures for me though.