This year, four out of Lewes’ seven bonfire societies carried effigies of US presidential hopeful Donald Trump and burnt him at their fire sites.
Lewes has a tradition of dissidence, as far back as 1264 when the town’s barons took on the King at the Battle of Lewes. Weapons and coins from the battle are still occasionally found in the countryside around Lewes.
When Greene King took over the Lewes Arms pub and ousted the locally-brewed Harvey’s beers, it became the target of a boycott that lasted for months, and that was widely publicised in newspapers including the Financial Times and in the television media. The billion-pound business finally capitulated and put Harvey’s beers back on the menu, before selling the pub to a rival chain a few months later.
Thomas Paine stayed in the town for a few years before he left for America. The author of the Rights of Man is still celebrated by the town, and his message of the right to liberty and respect for all is celebrated by the town each year in the bonfire festivities.
Undeniably, the celebrations are far from being politically correct. This year, there has been a heated row about the practice of “blacking up”, which some people find offensive; similarly, the representation of American Indians has been criticised in the past. The town has a strong anti-papal tradition, which remains a source of controversy. This stems back to the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs during the Marian persecutions of 1555-1557. The Pope is still exploded at the Cliffe bonfire celebrations, although other societies have given up the practice and I have never experienced any animosity towards Catholics during the celebrations.
As many as 40,000 people descend on Lewes on November 5th to celebrate Guy Fawke’s night. This year numbers were down because of a strike that affected Southern rail trains, but the town’s population of 17,000 was estimated to have at least doubled for the evening. Southern Rail is almost certainly more unpopular in the town than the Pope, or indeed Guido Fawkes, ever was.
No-one seems to know who chooses the effigies that are paraded through the town, and then taken off to the bonfire sites to be exploded by fireworks or burnt on the flames of the huge bonfires. The criteria is simple: you have to have done something that has irritated the people of the town, or “pissed them off” as people say.
Past years have seen effigies of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, British PM David Cameron and the infamous pig from Bullingham club days, and even the town’s unpopular parking metres introduced a few years ago by cash-hungry National Car Parks. Greene King was on the credit list when it booted out Harveys from the Lewes Arms, The effigies are designed and laboriously constructed from papier mache by the bonfire society members, and they take months to make.