Bonfire Prayers

Remember, remember the Fifth of November The Gunpowder Treason

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Bonfire Anthem

Now is the time for marching Now let your hearts be gay Hark to

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Bonfire : The Dark Side - Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations

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BONFIRE : In praise of the dark side . . .

A column called The Contrarian, with a brief to challenge the sacred cows so dear to Lewesians, should have no problem finding a subject in November. Right?

These Bonfire celebrations that transform the town so tediously every year, surely they’re a load of dangerous nonsense, with an unpleasant whiff of secterian hatred which we should ban, or at least make over to conform to 21st century norms. Right? Wrong. Lewes Bonfire is a rare survival of a genuine popular folk tradition in a society where, increasingly, inoffensive blandness is the prevailing orthodoxy.

Bonfire Lewes

Like Siena’s wild horse race the Palio, or Pampplona’s Bull running fiesta, it flouts every health and safety rule in the book. Its cheerful anarchy combined with repetitive ritual horrifies those who would curb and control our every move. Yet with its rivers of fire and throbbing drums it thrums some dark primal, Lawrentian chord deep within us all.

It is this neo-pagan ceremonial which draws spectators to our narrow streets to witness a spectacle that few understand. For Bonfire is a melange of historical tradition and anthropological rites, combining as it does elements of fire, ritual and even human sacrifice. Think Ku Klux Klan, Orange Order parades or even suttee, the burning alive of Indian widows – these uncomfortable cousins are the bad bedfellows of Bonfire.

The history of Bonfire is, of course, confused, not to say distinctly dodgy. Ostensibly it commemorates the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs in the Catholic Marian persecutions of the 1550s. But somewhere along the way it got mixed up with the Gunpowder Plot, a 17th century 9/11: an extremist Catholic conspiracy carried out in 1605 by fanatical terrorists to blow up the English Protestant establishment – plus some of their own more moderate co-religionists – carried out half a century after ‘Bloody’ Mary, (which is why Bonfire is celebrated on November 5, of course, the date of the plot’s discovery).

Since 1918, the close calendar proximity of the Armistice of November 11th that ended the Great War added yet another element to the Bonfire mix: Remembrance of the war dead whose memorial stands on the site of the Lewes burning.

What Bonfire really represents is not some cosy English custom like Morris Men or Pearly Kings and Queens, but an age when Sussex men and women were fried alive for their opinions. When doubtless stubborn and intolerant, but brave people were prepared to die horribly – whether in Lewes or on the Somme – to defend their liberties, to the death. Would that we had an ounce of their courage today when our freedoms are once again at stake – whether from officious authority, religious fanaticism, or an unelected European superstate.

So even if, when flaming crosses are paraded at the War Memorial at the climax of Bonfire, a thoroughly incoherent history is being remembered, it is precisely this untidy English eccentricity; this Sussex ‘we wont be druv’ particularism that makes the festivity so precious. Bonfire is about the dark side: the stink of burning human flesh, the crack of exploding skulls, about human freedom, torture, intolerance and death. That is what should be remembered, remembered. Success to the Bonfire Boys!

Nigel Jones : Viva Lewes

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