From an audience viewpoint, Lewes Bonfire feels wild, raw, exciting and a bit pagan.
There are flaming torches; painted banners; bangers randomly going off; whole chains of firecrackers engulfing the crowd in noise and smoke; drummers; brass bands; giant effigies of the latest hate-figures, destined for burning; marchers in costumes that have clearly been handed down over generations or in their trademark stripey smugglers jumpers and white trousers. Entire familes take part – from babies (always miraculously sleeping through the din) to 80 year olds and upwards.
It’s what isn’t there that makes it something really special. There are no safety barriers between the parade and the audience, no obvious officials marshalling the participants or the crowd. There are people collecting donations for each Bonfire Society as it passes by, but by and large the marchers ignore phones and cameras, until finally it dawns on me that the main thing that’s missing is any kind of ‘playing to the crowd’.
Bonfire isn’t a show put on for the tourists. It’s the continuation of a 405-year protest by a community – represented by the local bonfire societies who plan, fundraise and self-organise an annual defense of the fundamental right to freedom of expression.