Sunday, 6 November 2011

In which we didn't start the fire


As a Sussex girl, I know it's shameful that I'd never been to Lewes Bonfire Night before this week.

Our region doesn't hold that many distinctions - there are the Downs, and that pudding with the whole lemon baked inside it, but generally we don't dish up eccentric traditions in that quantities that, say, Gloucestershire or Yorkshire do. We'll be waiting a long time for The Only Way is Sussex to hit UK screens.

Obviously Brighton's the coolest kid at the party by a mile, strutting around in a multicoloured poncho made from hemp, but otherwise we're a gentle region, not given to attention-seeking whimsy. Just be sure to file us under 'not Surrey', and we're happy.

So it's all the more pressing that I experience one of our few proper, newsworthy events with my own eyes - and ears, as it turns out. Because (and you'll know this, of course, Sussex stalwarts that you are, and be shouting 'should have got some earplugs you townie fool'), Bonfire Night in Lewes is LOUD.

I'm not completely unprepared - I know to expect big crowds, fire, colourfully-dressed locals and the threat of minor to moderate underage drinking-fuelled violence. The website warns that we shouldn't take small children, asthmatics or valuables, and that my attendance constitutes 'violent non fit injuria' (Latin for 'strap a pair on, it's only a bit of blood'). But there is still a part of me that thinks, it's lovely fireworks! How bad can it be?

On the train from Victoria to Lewes we meet a girl who thinks otherwise. "You're planning on getting back to London TONIGHT?" she barks. "It's not going to happen." Then with the knowing, mocking, eminently punchable manner of a proud local, she describes scenes of thousands of people queuing for days around the entire town, performing a Lion King-style hyena stampede towards the station and trading first-borns for a three inch square of standing room on the 22.40 via Haywards Heath. "What they hey, we'll just sleep on a bench!" we shrug, knowing there is no way we will ever sleep on a bench.

In the end, it is fun. We practice for the evening by queuing in Bill's for lunch ("see, this is fine! We like queuing!"), then tap my former local friend Liz for insider advice on the bonfires ("Don't pay for anything"), and secure our spot on the high street for the parade ("Are they… um, allowed to hold fire that close to a baby's face?"). We sing Sussex By the Sea heartily, despite only knowing the four words of the title, and flinch like woodland creatures every time an exploding banger is lobbed our way. Then our political correctness-ometer is given a workout by a round of blacked-up Zulu costumes. It's fine, apparently. It's tradition.

Then to round the evening off nicely we DO get back to London, without having to sell any internal organs or bribe a policeman. We manage this by leaving early, and not making a fuss. The Sussex way.

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