So, fellow Bonfire Boys and Girls. We meet again. And this year, whilst there is still unfinished ‘Oggy Business” to conclude – and you know who you are Eastbourne BS – I am currently creatively occupied by the proposed ‘Siege of Lewes’. Or what some of us prefer to think of as ‘A Bit Of A Lock-in’ since that suggests grand larks and shenanigans rather than the sort of besiegement that involves the need to eat cats and tolerate being picked off by snipers. Not that there hasn’t been sniping. As will become evident.
Why, you might ask, is this ‘Siege of Lewes’ shizzle even on the cards? Isn’t Lewes always a bit of a challenge to get around on the 5th November? Aren’t there always too many Simpering Fools with selfie sticks leaping into the path of the processions so that they might capture their final act of foolishness on Instagram? Well yes. All that. But this year there’s more.
It’s a SATURDAY for starters. Never the best day for the 5th November to fall upon because a Saturday encourages ridiculously large crowds. Many many thousands more people fetch up than on a weekday Bonfire Night. This multitude add nothing to the event. They certainly add nothing to the smooth running of the evening since there’s nothing helpful about throngs of confused onlookers who remain baffled by the whole evening and can’t understand why the evening that appear to contain such promise and wonder actually consists of getting trampled on as they crane to get a sight of the proceedings. Why, they wonder, has nobody arranged Priority Seating? Or online booking? Or a trolley service of organic sushi? Or moved the whole shebang indoors once the rain set in?This year there’s the added bonus of a train strike. And yes, it is a bonus. Because for what seems like forever, the Bonfire Societies have objected – obviously to zero effect – to the train companies advertising Lewes Bonfire Night across their networks and beyond. ‘Come to Lewes – it’s not to be Missed!’ their posters insisted. And to make sure nobody missed their chance, the train company laid on extra trains. Loads of extra trains. And once Bonfire Night appeared to have vanished into an enveloping darkness that the visitor wasn’t party to, the queues to catch these trains stretched half-way back up to London.
But that was then. Nowadays the rail network is operated by Southern Rail. Or SASTA (Southern Are Sorry To Announce) or Southern Fail or any number of other names designed to describe the shockingly incompetent piss-poor excuse for a train service that this shambolic bunch of fuckwits, jokers and charlatans pretend to operate. Given their track record with trains (and yes, that is a dreadful play on words) it is no surprise that the relationship with their staff leaves a great deal to be desired too. Hence the train strike on the 5th November which is a series of similar actions called by the RMT over the past few months. The main effect being, somewhat bizarrely, that the trains have often been more reliable on strike days. Even more bizarrely, the Government have allowed Southern to keep their franchise which suggests that this is an attempt to break the unions while using fare paying passengers as pawns in their game.
But less of the politics and more of the Bonfire…because as soon as the latest round of train strikes were announced there was anguished reporting about the awfulness of no trains on the 5th November. BBC South East sent a series of shivering reporters to stand outside deserted stations to ‘Go Live’ for the late night news. From these reports we learned that ‘organisers had been spoken to’ and they were ‘very concerned’. Allegedly.
Which is odd considering how cheerfully the announcement was received by most of the people who could truthfully be described as ‘the organisers’. If Bonfire had organisers of course.
As Bonfire Night approaches, further details about the strike and access to the town have emerged. There will be the usual road closures and access to the town will, as always, be very limited. This year the tunnel will also be closed and the road closures will operate from 5pm until 1am. No trains will stop at Lewes from 12 noon on the 5th. This, in a nutshell, is what constitutes the so-called Siege of Lewes. Bring it on, I say and I am not alone. Although I would qualify my approval with the hope that everyone directly involved in Bonfire is able to get into town to enjoy what could be a very fine night.
However, given the potential that the Siege of Lewes presents, I’ve been a tad dismayed to discover A Disgruntled Bonfire Minority who appear to measure the success of the 5th in Lewes by the number of spectators in attendance. Thus the town will be ‘dead’ without incoming crowds of 50,000 and the subsequent atmosphere so dull that it will hardly be worth bothering to drag oneself over to the form up point since all that’s on offer is a night of boring old processing around the tumbleweed-strewn deserted streets of Lewes.
This is the Lewes that has been unhelpfully labelled the ‘Bonfire Capital of the World’ apparently. A description of the town which does nothing to discourage the desirability of the 5th or anything to encourage any understanding of it. Instead, it suggests a place to tick off on a bucket list of destinations. Lewes coming after Las Vegas but before Madrid. Whereas actually, on the 5th November, it should come top of the list called ‘Places I Live Nowhere Near and Need Not Clutter My Head With Any Knowledge Of Today’.
All this ‘Bonfire Capital’ malarkey goes hand in hand with the mistaken assumption that this year’s 5th will be fatally flawed by a diminution in spectator numbers and that, as ‘Bonfire Capital of the World’ we must prove ourselves worthy of that title and show ourselves off to all comers. All sentiments that I’ve seen expressed this week. And all misplaced. Because we have nothing to prove and we are not some sort of sideshow for the world to wonder at either. For sure, let us never accept the dangerous principle that A Bigger Bonfire Night Has to Be A Better Bonfire Night.
I remember the words of the legendary and late lamented Keith Austin at a public meeting of Lewes Town Council back in the early 1990s. They had made epic fools of themselves by attempting to hold secret meetings with other authorities in order to manage Bonfire Night without the involvement of the Bonfire Societies. Uproar ensued but the Bonfire case was put in a reasoned manner. Until some foolish councillor suggested that if we didn’t pipe down, the Council might not grant the necessary Road Closure Orders for the 5th. Keith was unmoved “Go on then” he said “You do what you want. But you wont stop us. We’ll walk anyway because we can. Because we do Bonfire for us. Not for you and not for anyone else.” Words that are as true today as they were then. We do it for us. Spectators are fortunate if they get to see what we do. They don’t have a right to be there and even if the train strike and road closures prevented every single visitor from getting into Lewes we’d still walk. Because we can.
So we should embrace the ‘Siege of Lewes’ as the opportunity to spend Saturday 5th November celebrating the Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in the traditional, incomparable and glorious manner that is ours alone.
But with the serious stuff dealt with, let me direct you towards some splendid, rib-tickling pre-Bonfire entertainment. Click on the image below to visit the Facebook page recently described as “What happens when an Entire Town goes trolling”…
(Note: Opinions expressed in this blog are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of any organisation I may be involved with.)