It’s also where I’m lucky enough to live.
Bonfire is a time when folks take leave of their senses. When they find their inner wildness. When they place themselves at risk in a way modern life pretty much forbids. Where Health and Safety are dirty words. When the small town of Lewes becomes something anarchic. Rebellious. Dangerous. When police, wearing goggles and protective clothing, walk alongside flame carrying 4 year olds in full Elizabethan dress. Where mothers push buggies containing their precious infants terrifyingly close to eardrum shattering bangers.
Bonfire has properly got under my skin this year. Last night I got home, smelling a bit of paraffin, feeling wired and excited by the spectacle of it all. The solemnity. The ritualism. The energy. The music. The beats. The crazy.
It’s taken me a while to get to this place. When we first moved here, I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. I had a lot of questions. Why the costumes, the societies, the praying, the pope? Some of those questions have been answered. Other’s haven’t. I’m still wondering about the Smurf costumes in the parade.
We didn’t go the first couple of years. The kids were tiny, or I was pregnant. But every November 5th I’d head to bed early, convinced that sleep was more important than fireworks. And every year, without fail, I would drag myself from my bed, as the skies outside our house, at the top of a hill, lit up with firework displays that defied belief.
These days I’m starting to understand Lewes bonfire is not about getting all your questions answered. Its power doesn’t come from a cogent or coherent explanation of it all. It’s a collective expression of something powerful. Its about reclaiming something ancient and significant. Something that runs deep in the veins of the people in the town, be they diehard Lewesians or relative newcomers.
It’s something to do with noise. And fire. And community. And togetherness. And the past and the present. And ritual. Prayers. Marching. Language. Costumes. Something unusual, remarkable, and at odds with the modern world.
Some bits are solemn, and even a bit sinister. Other bits are fun. It has a life of its own that I don’t pretend to understand, but that you can’t fail to experience as you stand at the side of the road, flames from the burning torches lapping at your forehead, your body braced against the bangs.
November 5th round here feels like Christmas. When your regular routine is forced to change. When shops close – friends and family gather to celebrate – traditions are formed.
Bonfire draws you in. I’m not Lewes born and bred. I’ve not even been a decade in this place. Yet I feel a huge sense of pride to be part this slightly bonkers, annually anarchic community, who hold onto a tradition so unique and splendid.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the spectacle. It’s impossible not be lifted by the light, so lacking at this bleak time of year. By the solemnity and ritual of parts of it. By whatever it is that is primitive, instinctual and awesome about flames. Watching it is like being transported back in time. Albeit to an undefined period in history where Smurfs walk alongside Tudor monarchs. But it’s something about the ancient buildings. The burning crosses. The red smoky glow floating above the procession. The ear damaging noise. It’s primal. Powerful. Awesome.
And almost as magical is the way that the town returns to normal the next day. All evidence of the celebrations removed as you sleep. Giving the events of the preceding night a dreamlike quality. That you try to describe to folks who’ve never seen it. But can’t.
I was surprised today, November 6th, how moved I felt as I drove past my local fire site, which just last night was a huge, raging inferno. There was still a small fire burning. A memory of the fifth, flickering and fading. Until next year. When it’ll surely be back again in all its wild and wondrous glory.