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Sussex Express Report 2003 - Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations
March 8, 2014 at 4:13 pm by v
All in the best possible taste…
While threat of prosecution hangs heavy over Firle, the 2,500 members of the five Lewes bonfire societies came through Wednesday’s celebrations with their halos intact. There was hardly a hint of bad taste, although the rear of the Cliffe skull-and-crossbones tableau showed a Cliffe member bending the Borough key over his knee – a cunning reference to both society’s claims of a 150th birthday. While Cliffe kept it dignified (150 flaming crosses on its bonfire field), others went for the jugular on a number of local and global issues.
Commercial Square echoed the sentiments of many with a fat businessman lording it over a Lewes pub, highlighting the axing of Harveys beers from pubs owned by another brewery. Borough wickedly exhibited Tony Blair and George Bush dressed up as lookalike David Bedfords complete with droopy moustaches. Waterloo on the other hand had the redoubtable Mr Blair on the couch with the Simpson Family, a dig at the voice-over recording the Prime Minister did for the show during the Iraq war. Uncle Sam holding the world in one hand and a Middle Eastern road atlas in the other was South Street’s contribution to global comment.
Some 350 police officers and support staff were hardly kept busy. There were four arrests for minor offences and a few bonfire burns. Of more concern in the current climate was how the public might react to the images set before them. Earlier in the week Chief Supt Paul Pearce had written to all societies saying: “The events at Firle have thrown into sharp focus the need for bonfire societies to be aware of the law regarding racial and religious hatred. The fact that the Lewes celebration commemorates an event that took place in the town centuries ago does not exempt those taking part from the law.
As far as the Express could ascertain, no-one, was offended by anything produced on Wednesday by the societies. The problem Lewes bonfire faces in future years will be balancing what might be described as good taste with its undoubted continued need to present challenging witty and provocative effigies. Speaking yesterday (Thursday) Lewes MP Norman Baker said: “I am pleased that Bonfire Night went off well in Lewes but events at Firle did, perhaps inevitably, cast a shadow over the celebrations. It has become vividly apparent that the perception of Bonfire outside Sussex is very different from that within it”. By John Eccles
Oh, what a lovely bonfire night!…
The town’s five bonfire societies strove to outshine each other. The weather was wonderful. The fireworks were unforgettable and the tableaux were all in the best possible taste! Some 350 police officers and support staff kept the peace on Wednesday night but in the event the biggest policing exercise of the year was not needed. Only four arrests were made, for a breach of the peace, being drunk and disorderly, for minor assault and for possessing suspected class-A drugs thought to be ecstacy.
An estimated 35,000 people flocked to the county town – a confirmed 14,000 by train – to watch the elaborate celebrations commemorating the anniversary of the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Extra fire crews and paramedics were on stand-by to attend incidents. But, despite the huge crowd, there were no serious injuries although St John Ambulance dealt with a number of individuals suffering with minor burns.
Chief Superintendent Paul Pearce, incident commander said: “Lewes bonfire is the Force’s largest operation of its kind and it was a great success from a police perspective with only a small number of arrests. The number of spectators in the town was up on last year and the number of people travelling into the town by public transport was also up on previous years. This is good news and suggests that people heeded our calls to travel by train or bus to Lewes. The quick and responsible actions by the bonfire societies ensured a safe and well controlled event”.
Events at Firle over the past fortnight had the potential to make bonfire chiefs pensive over what might happen on November 5. As it turned out they had nothing to worry about. The Lewes show was perfect in every way…right down to the tableaux and set-pieces. As bonfire council Secretary Keith Austin said the next morning: “We had no complaints. People took the effigies for what they are..good clean fun.”
Simply the best, ever…
Cliffe saved it all for the fireworks. They didn’t bother with enemies of bonfire, and the set-piece made the obvious point that the town’s pre-eminent society was celebrating its 150th anniversary. Cliffe saved it for the aerials. The display at the firesite was impossible to describe, simply the best ever. The biggest bangs, the finest combinations, the sky was lit up…150 flaming crosses added to the atmosphere.
How do you describe being stuck in a field close to midnight with the sky lit up like a diamond? The tableau also celebrated a birthday party which will be impossible to forget. A massive skull-and-crossbones, the club’s motif, was paraded through the town (it had difficulty manouvering around Albion Street) and then – wallop – up it went, as did the Pope and Guy Fawkes.
As Chairman Andy Freeman put in the society programme; “It is to our children that we must now look to ensure that the Cliffe moves forward for another 150 years, and the challenges will be against bureaucracry, red tape, political correctness, the nanny-state and the compensation culture.” As part of the birthday celebrations, smugglers were promoted to first pioneers, leading the grand procession. New costumes include Moors and 1793 Hussards de la Mort. And suffragettes were there in force to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their movement.
With 900 paid-up members, Cliffe is certainly the biggest of the five Lewes bonfire societies and has nothing to worry about in terms of popularity. Its procession went on and on and on. Bands taking part included the Heathfield Silver Band, Surrey Pipe Band, the Sussex AFC Corps of Drums, Rumple Drumskin and the Expedient Jazz Band. Visiting society was Nevill Juvenile. Firle did not take part for reasons explained elsewhere in the paper. Seven thousand torches were made – and there were seven blazing tar barrels.
Uncle Sam blown to smithereens…
A Tall and magnificent Uncle Sam, holding the world in one hand and a Middle Eat road atlas in the other, was South Street’s tableau this year. Produced by David Muddle and his team, it proved popular with spectators who shouted: ‘Burn the American!’ Effigies of Pope Paul V and Guy Fawkes also exploded in clouds of colourful fireworks and flames. South Street started proceedings with the children’s procession, led by the 17 blazing crosses that commemorate the Lewes Martyrs. With more than 200 members marching and complete with 3,000 torches, the society impressed crowds with its Siamese dancer and military costumes. Chairman Richard Todd, 55, praised the costumes and said:”It’s an excellent turnout”.
South street unfurled a new banner this year in memory of Kath Hill (1909-2002), a society member and worker for 50 years. “She was always there, always fundraising”, said Mr Todd. Barbara Nichols, 79, is now the oldest processing member of South Street Bonfire Society. “I first dressed up when I was five, I’ve been doing it since I was ten, and then after the war until now”, she said. “My parents were in it – at one time there were about 20 of our family in it. I love it. It’s just exciting”. Mrs Nichols month old grand-daughter is probably the youngest South Street member. All society members are enthusiastic about their roles.
An impressive Henry VIII (chris Whiting), accompanied by his wife, Siobhaine and sons Joseph (dressed as Ali G) and Theo (in Elvis costume) said: “It’s thoroughly enjoyable”. South Street’s Archbishop, Dennis Bond, who leads the procession and escorts the President at the War Memorial, said: “It’s the atmosphere and camaraderie that appeals to me. Bonfire is peculiar to Lewes and it’s fabulous.” Richard Todd agreed: “Bonfire is good for the town and South Street is good value for money”.
Big Bang for the fat cat boss…
A Fat Cat businessman was blown to bits by Commercial Square. The society’s uncompromising title for its Lewes Bonfire 2003 tableau was Like It Or Lump It. Built by Roy Chapman and his talented team, it featured a huge boss figure standing ominously over Lewes’s pubs. It hit out at the axing of Harveys beer from some town taverns and highlighted the growing trend of big business making decisions with little regard for tradition and what local people want. And if that message was clear so was Commercial’s commitment to maintain its high standard of incredible costumes and astounding firework displays.
More than 600 joined the procession including visiting societies from Newick, Robertsbridge and Hastings. To keep the November chill away people’s toes were kept tapping by the Brighton Silver Band, the Hastings Corps of Drums, the Lewes, Glynde and Beddingham Brass Band, the Newhaven ATC Band, the Samba Band and the Barcombe Scout Band. The evening’s festivities kicked off with the ever growing children’s procession.
“It’s a very healthy sign for the future of the society”, said Chairman Simon Newman. The society’s seven processions were, as always, led by the famous Indian 1st Pioneers with their ornate head-dresses under the direction of Pioneer Chief Geoff Allen. The 2nd Pioneers followed. The ladies were dressed in stunning period gowns and the men in elaborate uniforms from the American Civil War.
The traditional smugglers, under the direction of Peter Sison, in their black and gold guernseys, formed the impressive back ranks of the procession, taking charge of the blazing tar barrels. A unique 15ft high Indian Totem Pole, designed by Captain of Set Pieces Sharon Reid was lit in the High Street to the delight of the crowds. Effigies of Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V built by Captain of Effigies Simon Richards were blown to smithereens at the fire site.
The tableau was destroyed following a breath-taking firework display under the direction of Craig Allen. The Archbishop, Paul Wheeler conducted the proceedings at the fire site and addressed the crowd following Bonfire Prayers, in Commercial Square, at the end of the evening. This was followed by a programme of music, including Auld Lang Syne and Land of Hope and Glory.
Sien takes charge of a spectral tapestry…
Everyone in Lewes knows the Borough will put on a good show. But it’s hard to see how anyone can beat the town’s oldest bonfire society for spectral and atmospheric pzazz that literally raised the hairs on the back of your neck. Leading from the front, Borough boasted Britain’s youngest and first ever female Bonfire Commander-in Chief Sien Gocher, 24 who took command of this 150th anniversary parade. Sien from Landport works as coordinating producer for a TV company. She won her spurs on Borough’s committee, served three years as Aide- de- Camp and helped steer an impeccable Borough team to their finest performance yet.
Renowned for their impressive costumes – if you don’t know who represents Borough when you arrive in town you soon will – this year’s Zulus, redcoats and Tudor nobility stole the eye and made it hard to look away, Borough’s members number hundreds aged from six months to the late 80’s; all loyal to the hilt like Tim Parsons who marched his 50th march this year. The Barking Bateria Samba band’s true ‘revolution music’ drew a fine turnout from the University of East London. The eerie drumbeats and pure percussion are true ‘slave music’ raven-feather clad Mayaa Gyasi from Chingford told us.
Ingenuity abounded; Joan Sexton – wife of Borough Vice Chairman, press officer and Captain of Torches Paul – wore a hand-made Zulu costume complete with zebra skin and vivid woven beading. Father-in-law Mick paraded as a Zulu chief. Assorted senior clerics included ‘Bishop’ Chris Brown and ‘Pope’ Kevin Knight. The night also saw the re-appearance of ‘Peter’s Ghost’ – a spectral pig first made to ridicule a press baron involved in an altercation with the bonfire boys back in the 1850s and ceremonially destroyed outside the Law Courts during the procession.
Borough holds the ‘monster iron key to the ancient borough of Lewes’ and the society staged one of the night’s most stirring sights as a blazing tar barrel hurtled hissing and spitting into the Ouse. This year’s formidably impressive £6,000 firework display held the vast audience mesmerised. Once again proud Borough introduced a tableau; ‘We’re Doing It Our Way’ into the evenings proceedings. Tony and George’s number is clearly up in Lewes. Whoops of delight greeted armless effigies of the two leaders got up to look like David Bedfords complete with droopy moustaches in a triple-lifesize TV ad pastiche.
PM joins the Simpsons in Time Out Toony…
Tony Blair became a figure of fun for Waterloo Bonfire Society by joining America’s most dysfunctional family. In their grand tableau, the Waterloo boys had a cartoon Tony Blair relaxing with Marge, Lisa, Bart and Maggie Simpson – a sly dig at one of the PM’s ‘extra curricular’ activities this summer. During the Iraq War Mr Blair took time off for a trip to America where he did a voice over recording for an episode of the smash hit comedy cartoon series. The Simpsons, drawing criticism from some tabloid newspapers.
Titled Time Out Toony, the piece kept with Waterloo’s tradition of cartoon tableaux, following last year’s depiction of Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh. On the other side there was a huge effigy of Homer Simpson with an 8ft can of Duff Beer. A second smaller tableau featuring Guy Fawkes in a rowing boat (named SS Plotters) also went up in a colourful explosion of fireworks at the Malling Brooks firesite. Both tableaux were designed and made by 33-year old Justin Sedar and Katie Rea, 20, with help from Vickie Rea, 15, Amy Rea, who is 14 tomorrow, and Kevin Sexton.
Captain of the fire site Adam Wood estimates the amazing overhead display of fireworks which lit up the sky with a spectrum of colours, cost around £6,000. This year’s November 5 was a special night for Waterloo Bonfire Society Chairman David Quinn, who was celebrating his 25th year in the post. “I think its a record”, he said “It was a really great night – definately one for the society’s history books”.
Waterloo’s ever-expanding troupe of 400 members marched a parade to be proud of around the town centre, showing off the society’s awesome range of costumes – thought to be the largest of all the societies. The fire site was even more packed with onlookers than last year, and many were shocked when a male streaker emerged from the crowd and did a quick lap around the bonfire. Membership Secretary Valerie Rea explained Waterloo’s growing popularity; “We’re a family society. The kids love our cartoon tableaux and adults can laugh at the political messages. It’s just great fun for everyone.”
Sussex Express Friday, 7 November, 2003 www.sussexexpress.co.uk
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