Bonfire fright

Jonathan Calder reports from the famous Lewes bonfire on firework night's fight for survival.

Jonathan Calder

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They burned Guy Fawkes in Lewes on Monday night. They burned Pope Paul V and Osama bin Laden, too. Zulu warriors paraded through the streets with suffragettes; Vikings followed cavaliers. And the Bonfire Boys, with their flaming torches, firecrackers and striped, piratical costumes, were everywhere.

Each 5 November people pour into the Sussex town to watch the processions and awesome firework displays of its five bonfire societies. This year the crowds reached 80,000, despite pleas from police to stay away.

History gives Bonfire Night more resonance in Lewes. Between 1555 and 1557, 17 Protestants were burnt as heretics in the High Street. The roots of the current celebrations can be traced back deep into the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth the event was marked by a ferocious anti-Catholicism and frequent clashes with the authorities. So ‘Bonfire’ – the anarchic spirit of 5 November in Lewes – was born.

Since then, bigotry has retreated and it is now the town’s war dead who are publicly honoured. The enemies of Bonfire burned in effigy are now an eclectic mix of controversial international figures, local politicians and police chiefs who have crossed the Bonfire Boys (Boys who are of both sexes and all ages).

Yet across the river in Cliffe, away from the town centre and its crash barriers, something of the old spirit remains. Here, banners proclaiming ‘No Popery’ and honouring the Martyrs still fly. When the torchlit procession of ‘the mighty Cliffe’ – the most fearsome bonfire society – passes, you breathe the smoky, dangerous tang of popular radicalism.

Beyond Lewes, Bonfire is finding the struggle for survival even harder. Halloween sometimes seems to be supplanting Bonfire Night, in much the way that the grey squirrel has driven out the red. The honest begging of ‘penny for the guy’ is giving way to the demanding money with menaces of ‘trick or treat’.

But we have found new problems with Halloween, too, such as child molesters and poisoned candy. These problems, together with the Baby Boomers’ inability to grow middle aged gracefully, mean that children who venture out in costumes are likely to be accompanied by parents who have also dressed up. The Halloween that commerce encourages us to celebrate today is a thoroughly sanitised version of the ancient festival.

But it is our concern for order and safety that is really damaging Bonfire Night, even though the figures suggest that firework injuries are declining year by year. The Brighton Argus reports that in Lewes following Bonfire Night, ambulance staff treated 21 casualties, mainly for minor burns. Given the size of the crowd, this suggests that visiting the town on 5 November is safer than staying at home.

Another tactic used by enemies of Bonfire has been to campaign against the noise and vandalism that fireworks can cause. Here the Lewes experience does not help their case either. The Argus reports one arrest for being drunk and disorderly, and the next morning the town was almost unnaturally tidy.

Director of the National Campaign for Firework Safety Noel Tobin tried a bolder tactic, calling for all firework displays to be abandoned this year as a mark of respect for the dead of 11 September and civilians perishing in Afghanistan. ‘The last thing people want is the daily bombardment of explosions for weeks on end’, he said. ‘We shouldn’t have to put up with it.’

Close reading suggests he was not thinking of the citizens of Kabul but of people who might be inconvenienced by a display at the local rugby club. You laugh, but this combination of mawkishness and opportunism often plays very well with the media. And I have not yet mentioned All Fireworks Frighten Animals, a pressure group run by an ME sufferer from Derbyshire on behalf of animals, young children and elderly people. That really does cover all bases.

Not that Halloween will survive unscathed. The Guardian‘s parenting page, a reliable barometer of opinion on the illiberal left, recently asked six experts whether Halloween should be cancelled. The result was a score draw.

And last month a Leicestershire newspaper produced a window bill for householders who did not wish to be bothered by trick or treaters. What was startling was the names of the bodies supporting it. You could understand the involvement of the district council and the police, but what was the RSPCA doing there?

Generations of children brought up by Blue Peter knew to keep their pets indoors on Bonfire Night. Today’s youngsters have to protect their cats and dogs from vampires and ghosts as well as bangers and rockets.

Jonathan Calder is parliamentary sketchwriter for Liberal Democrat News.

Read on:

Scared silly over Halloween, by Jeff Nicolich

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