Raphael Salkie: It was like a nazi rally or the ku klux klan

November 11, 2005

Lewes Bonfire Celebrations
Lewes, November 5

Men in bowler hats and orange shirts march through the streets against popery. In the local Free Presbyterian chapel, the priest denounces what he calls "the darkness of Rome" as opposed to "the true teaching of the Word of God". Outside the Catholic church, a police Land Rover keeps guard. An effigy of the Pope is set alight in a nearby field to cries of "Burn him" from the angry mob.

Londonderry or Drumcree in the 1970s? No, a small Sussex town on November 5th. Well, sort of.

The chapel in question is allied to Ian Paisley, and the priest did use those words, but most of the 4,000 marchers in Lewes were dressed in bizarre and relatively harmless costumes, from Zulu warriors, Native American chiefs and Elizabethan nobles to Vikings, devils, wolves, smugglers and Scooby Doo. The Land Rover was probably watching a road junction, and the effigy was of Pius IX, Pope from 1846-1878, not the cuddly German pontiff we have now. (This year they also burnt an effigy of Charles Clarke clutching an ID stamp - good for them.) As for the bloodthirsty crowd, I overheard the following priceless exchange as we waited endlessly for the fireworks: Man: "Burn him!"

Child: "Daddy, you're embarrassing us."

Mother: "No, Caroline, you're being embarrassing by saying that."

So English - as, indeed, was the parade.

Most marchers carried burning torches, and as we watched the sea of flames approach along the High Street my daughter and I exchanged worried whispers about similarities to Nazi rallies and the Ku Klux Klan.

As they passed us, though, they turned out to be a rather sad and exhausted bunch of bonfire enthusiasts from Lewes and surrounding towns - no lawless thuggery, just the middle classes at play.

One large man in a wild mask and head-dress carried a banner saying "Burgess Hill" - incongruous enough for anyone who knows the dull dormitory town near Brighton, but sublime when the wind carried flames from his torches on to his costume, and he leapt about to shake off the burning fragments.

Lewes has celebrated bonfire night in a big way for well over a century.

Although in the early years there was plenty of mayhem and violence, nowadays it has become a colourful but rather meaningless spectacle.

The interesting question behind all this is the place of tradition in our lives. The Lewes bonfire societies claim that they are keeping old customs alive and that no one takes the reactionary parts too seriously.

I'm not so sure. It's true that 17 Protestant martyrs were murdered in Lewes under Queen Mary - but why not remember them by making a plea for religious tolerance instead of burning effigies of Catholics?

And what about other events in the town's history, such as the Battle of Lewes in 1264, which prevented King Henry III from taking away the civil rights conceded by his father in the Magna Carta. In the 18th century, the great radical and freethinker Tom Paine, a Lewes resident for several years, spoke out bravely on behalf of the poor and oppressed and was hounded out of Europe.

If the people of Lewes want to dress up each year and nearly burn down the town, let them do it for a worthy cause.

Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies at Brighton University.

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