On November 5, 2016, four of the six Lewes Bonfire Societies blow up effigies of US presidential candidate Donald Trump at the culmination of an evening of torchlit parades, massive bonfires and fireworks displays to mark the downfall of Guy Fawkes and the burning of the 17 Lewes Martyrs.
I’ve joined the festivities for the fourth year and witnessed six brilliant processions with thousands of torch-bearing participants, fabulous tableaux, wonderful costumes, marching bands and more non-politically correct fun than you can imagine. More importantly, I’ve arrived in Lewes, a small historic town near Brighton in Sussex, in time to give some small help to the preparations the day before. Volunteers are what makes the societies tick and the Waterloo Bonfire Society is no exception, so even my very modest contribution is welcomed.
In a cavernous shed at a secret location the society’s tableau is being built. On November 4, it’s still a well guarded secret, but now that it’s all over I can reveal how much I laughed to see a 14-foot-high effigy of The Donald, riding a mechanical bull, surrounded by a Mexican wall, a giant cactus behind and a vicious rattle snake biting his foot. At the time I first saw the tableau, he was headless and chief artist Abbie was busy painting his face. She gives me the job of putting a base coat on his hair. Later I put some finishing touches to the Mexican wall and the giant cactus. My contribution of half a dozen hours of simple painting was dwarfed by the thousands of man hours needed to get the tableau, the torches, the massive fireworks displays, not to mention effigies of Guy Fawkes himself and some of the unfortunate Lewes martyrs, burning at the stake.
If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s the verse that’s chanted in the pub the night before:
Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason, and plot,
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’t was his intent
To blow up the King and Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below,
Poor old England to overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys,
Ring, bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys,
God save the King.
Not only did Catholic Fawkes and his dastardly conspirators fail to blow up the King in 1605, but they paid the ultimate penalty for their treason. Roll back the clock a few years earlier and the Catholic Queen Mary is on the throne, forcing her religion on a newly Anglican England. Refusing to return to the old religion, 17 Lewes martyrs were burned at the stake outside the town hall between 1555 and 1557. So while we are condemning one bunch of traitors with the Bonfire Night activities, we are also remembering the sacrifice of the historic martyrs. The fun and games surrounding the tragic events of centuries ago have been wildly celebrated in Lewes by the six Bonfire Societies for more than 150 years. The first recorded reference to Bonfire celebrations was in Waterloo Place, where my mum lives, in 1857. The Waterloo Bonfire Boys were reported to be “out in great force” the following year, with “large banners, processions, blazing tubs and torches, the burning of effigies and a very large fire.”
After a torrential downpour the day before, November 5, 2016 starts with bright sunshine and no threat of rain, but a forecast of bitter cold. Donning layers and layers of insulation under my red and white striped smuggler’s costume should be enough to keep the cold out, but I have a hip flask filled with Famous Grouse Smoky Black Scotch whisky for emergencies, and for sharing.
As dark falls, I head out to the Waterloo Bonfire Society’s headquarters in The Lamb, a local pub, where hundreds cram the bar. All the roads in town have been closed to traffic since early afternoon, and shopkeepers have boarded up their windows, just in case of trouble. The police presence is overwhelming and I suspect there will be more trouble from drunken onlookers than disciplined society members, who police themselves. The first procession sets off shortly after dark, and is just for kids, and mums, dads and grandparents. As a new grandfather, I reckon I qualify, so off I go on the shortest procession of the night.
Back at the pub for a breather, I take time to renew old acquaintances from processions past. We share contents of hip flasks. A charming Frenchman, who has lived in Britain for 25 years, offers me some bourbon. Someone one else offers me brandy and I hand my whisky around as well.
Then we’re formed up in our respective groups for the next procession. After a short pause at the War Memorial, where a brief service of Remembrance is held and wreaths laid, our procession of several hundred marchers heads to the top of town. Vast crowds line the route along the way, cheering wildly when our firework team let off loud bangs or strings of Chinese crackers. The boos and jeers for the tableau of Donald Trump bounce off the flint walls of the narrow streets and alleyways. Some seem to hate him enough to throw missiles at the effigy. Fortunately, none hit the team pulling the display, all hilariously dressed as Mexican “bad hombres.”
Puffed out by the long haul up two very long hills, we repair to The Black Horse Inn for refreshments and to watch the other societies follow us up the hill. It’s all a blur now, but I remember seeing a crowd of black-face Zulus, chanting suffragettes, more bands than I could count, and literally thousands of flaming-torch-bearing smugglers, each in differently striped sweaters. Including our Trump tribute, three other societies mock the crazy candidate with effigies of their own.
All the groups gather for a mass procession back down town. Waterloo leads the processions, which continue for an hour after we’re back in the pub again. Thankfully, this third procession is all downhill. Volunteers have brought fresh batches of torches to the starting point, and from past experience I’ve worked out that it takes four torches to get to the finish line. So with one flaming torch in one hand and three spares in the other, off I go again. Marching with a young lad of just five in his first event, and his pretty blonde mum. Far from being exhausted by marching up and down hill, he chats the whole way there and back.
The team dragging The Donald now find that the strong young men and women on the restraining ropes at the back come in to full effect for the tableau wants to run away downhill. While the bands, including our own Waterloo Bonfire Society Pipe and Drum Band, and the marching Mongols, Greeks and Romans, Tudors, Puritans and Victorians take another well earned break, the tab heads off to the firesite, where more teams have built a massive bonfire out of wooden pallets, set up a massive fireworks display and built a pulpit for the “Lord Bishop” and his Clergy.
By the time we arrive at the end of the fourth procession, the fire is well lit and perhaps 10 thousand spectators have each paid a small fee to watch the proceedings from behind sturdy barriers. We privileged costumed folk enter the field and get as close as safety allows to the fire and pulpit. After a welcome warming of the nether parts, we watch astounded as the bishop and his attendants attempt to deliver a sermon. It’s impossible to hear a word as the entire crowd pelts them with flash bangs, many finding their mark. When the bishop can take no more, they retire and the fireworks start.
At first there’s splendid pyrotechnics as Guy Fawkes is ceremoniously destroyed. Then more and lasting fireworks as the Donald Trump tableau is blown up and utterly demolished. Abbie tells me later that all that’s left is his finger. I hope that’s not an omen. Some of the crowd think that’s the end of the show and start to leave, but it’s just the beginning. A spectacular aerial firework with thousands of multi-coloured explosions light up the sky to end the evening, except for our fifth procession back home. As we march off, the other societies fireworks displays light the hills around town in every direction.
It’s truly been a magnificent evening.
FOOTNOTE 1: The wretched train union (RMT, the Rail, Maritime and Transport union) spoils the fun by stopping thousands of folk from attending, by refusing to halt the trains at the Lewes station, an action deemed “spiteful and vindictive” by a Southern Rail spokesman.
FOOTNOTE 2: By the end of Tuesday, November 8, 2016, we’ll know if the Lewes Bonfire Night effigies were a community boot to an awful US presidential candidate, or a deadly insult to the new US President. I can’t hardly wait for the outcome!