Those of my friends who know about the Sussex Bonfire tradition will be shouting “Burn Him!” when they read the title of his blog. We have a wonderful Bonfire Season here in Sussex. Of course Bonfire night is not a Sussex tradition, its a national thing. most towns up and down the country hold some sort of Guy Fawkes night. But here in Sussex we have a Bonfire season that is unlike anything else in the UK (except for a few villages on the Kent or Surrey border).
It is a season, because it starts in September and goes on until mid November. Many towns and villages in Sussex have Bonfire Societies that all host an event. Members from each society support the other towns and villages and so the events start in September in order to get them all in. Lewes celebrations are the biggest and perhaps best known, But there are great events in Hastings, Eastbourne, Battle, Newick, Isfield, Mayfield, Rye, South Heighton, Burgess Hill, Uckfield, Crowborough, Ninefield, East Hoathly, Seaford and Hailsham to name but a few. Each of this events follows a similar pattern. A torchlit procession makes its way through the streets to the fire site. Then the flaming torches are thrown onto a bonfire to light it and there follows an massive firework display.
Each society has its own colours and wear these on their smugglers jumpers (or Guernseys) but in addition to the stripes there is also a great variety of costumes worn including medieval dress, buccaneers, pirates, vikings, saxons, victorians, American civil war and all manner of military dress from British history. Rookies (small bangers) and firecracker are set off during the procession and at the fire site. Effigies of those in the news are paraded through the streets and then Blown to bits on the firesite These effgies are often of national or international politicians from accross the political spectrum, but they are also sometimes based on local issues that are affecting the host town. The whole event is a riot of noise and colour and I love it!
However not all love it so much. Fireworks are loud and antisocial, paraffin torches, bonfires and fireworks not environmentally friendly say some. Others think in this day and age we should replace the flaming torches with LED wands and the bonfire and fireworks replaced with lasers and light shows. I would hate to see this happen. Bonfire is about remembrance, (it remembers 17 proteststant martyrs who were burnt at the stake in Lewes area in the 1750s by Queen Mary , that is why they carry 17 burning crosses in the procession. there is also an act of remembrance for those who lost their lives in world wars), It is a commemoration of the foiling of the gunpowder plot and and it is also about rebellion, thumbing your nose at authority. If it became too sanitised it would loose this anarchic feel. There is a saying in Sussex “We wunt be druv” meaning we wont be driven, or we wont be told what to do. This is also the motto of the Sussex Bonfire Societies and I love that too.
Now I am not a son on Sussex, I have only lived in Sussex for 20 years. To some I am still a DFL (Down From London), But I believe I have shown my support to the bonfire societies over the past years and so can confidently say “we wont be Druv” along with them I have seen Bonfire become less wild and more tamer than it was years ago, and I would hate to see this tradition become too anodyne, too innocuous or too sterile. It works because of the slightly anarchic nature.
Obviously traditions can change and adapt. I know many Morris sides who used to black up as part of their costume. This was not a racist act or in any way connected to the black and white minstrel tradition. It did (and still does for some) lead to accusations of racism and therefore many folk festivals refused to book such troupes. A simple solution for many was to only paint half of the face black or add another colour. Thereby keeping the tradition and spending their time explaining the dances rather than fending off accusations of racism.
As a Pagan, I do believe in environmental issues. and perhaps my continued support of bonfire could be seen as contrary to environmental beliefs. Fireworks and paraffin are not the most environmentally friendly combination. Although I will say the bonfire societies do make herculean efforts to clear up after them the day after their events. I think though, that I will continue to ask governments and big business to clear up their act. To make less packaging and pollute less. To invest in cleaner sustainable energy rather than Fracking and fossil fuels.
Once these things are in place I may reconsider my support for bonfire. But then again maybe not. We live in such a sterile world at times. Many of us are glued to our screens and phones, spending hours watching unreal stuff on line ( myself included) So I welcome those opportunities to do something a little bit chaotic, a little bit anarchic. Bonfire in Sussex, with its noise, drums, colour and flaming torches makes me feel very alive. They are not pagan events, but they speak to me of a more primal, tribal past.
It is worth mentioning too that the various events raise thousands of pounds each year for local charities, so they do give back to the community.
I know the constant noise from fireworks for weeks is not good for animals and pets and I get how not everyone likes them. I do think the sale of fireworks to the public , if not banned, should be restricted to the week of the 5 November rather than weeks either side of this date.
But for the time being at least “I Wunt be Druv” and look forward to participating in the Bonfire season next year.
Here is a short video from Isfield and Little Horstead Bonfire