At 10.25 last night Boris Johnson was destroyed in effigy by a series of thunderous explosions at Malling Recreation Ground on the edge of Lewes in Sussex.
Although this might be seen as evidence of Johnson’s unpopularity, Downing Street is unlikely to derive great satisfaction from it, for in one hand he carried an axe, and from the other dangled the severed head of Theresa May.
Fireworks of remarkable power and beauty erupted first from beside him, then from behind him, and finally from within him.
A large crowd watched as clouds of smoke began to pour from the top of his head and out of his mouth. Once the cloud of smoke had cleared, all that was left of Johnson was the metal frame which had supported him.
This spectacle was staged by the Waterloo Bonfire Society, one of the six societies in Lewes which mark 5th November by parading through the town with 17 flaming crosses (illustrated here), commemorating the 17 Protestant martyrs who were burned at the stake in the town in 1555-57. After seeing who can do the best procession, they compete to see who can put on the best firework display.
The Waterloo display started with an enormous bonfire made out of wooden pallets erected in the form of a pyramid, which was set alight with burning torches thrust into it and hurled up its sides.
The whole evening was shot through with displays of contempt for authority – originally the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, but nowadays the authority of anyone who has in some way annoyed the people of Lewes, a handsome town of 17,000 people with a castle and a brewery.
Once the Waterloo’s bonfire was well alight, shooting sparks hundreds of feet into the air, a member of the society who had been designated the Lord Bishop mounted a scaffold, accompanied by three other members in clerical robes, and delivered an inaudible speech in which he attacked (according to the printed programme) “the police, local councillors and do-gooders trying to curtail the celebrations”.
The speech could not be heard because of the very loud bangers which were being hurled by other members of the society at the four figures on the scaffold. The Lord Bishop has remarked of a recent year: “A rookie [rook scarer] found its way into my mitre and blew a hole in the back of my head – quick trip to hospital to be glued up, and concussion.”
Part of the charm of this event is that it is not conducted in the pedantically cautious manner which generally prevails today, with members of the public kept far away from any possible danger.
Hundreds of people, including many visiting bonfire societies from other parts of Sussex and even from as far afield as Kent, parade through the narrow streets of the town with blazing torches and hurl blazing barrels from the bridge into the River Ouse, while many thousands of spectators look on.
I asked a member of the Cliffe Bonfire Society, who was himself clad in a First World War uniform, what people value most about these celebrations. He replied:
“It’s a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Some people like all the remembrance. Some people like the anarchy of it. Some people like the costumes.”
There is certainly a lot of remembrance. Special ceremonies are held at the war memorial to remember the dead of the two world wars, and the Waterloo’s programme recounted the horrific fate of three battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment which between them lost almost 1400 men killed, wounded or captured during a diversionary attack on the day before the start of the Battle of the Somme.
There is also a lot of dressing up. Members of the societies enjoy wearing an extraordinary range of costumes, many of which are military in inspiration. There are moments when one feels the Napoleonic wars might still be in progress, but others when one is charmed to glimpse Vikings or suffragettes or long files of smugglers in striped jerseys.
I was not sure what one man was, so asked him how I should describe his costume. He turned out to be a Samurai warrior: “It’s just the warrior caste that we chose for our pioneer corps. It’s a way of honouring and respecting that warrior class, not taking the mick.”
Another man, in a red cloak, proved to be a devil, though he looked too kindly for that role, and had taken off his hat, which had horns on it, because it was uncomfortably tight.
The man in a First World War uniform said his own preference was for the anarchic side of things: “I like the fact that you come out on the street and the whole world stops for you, and you can get away with things you can’t normally get away with.”
There is a spirit of liberty at this event, informed by the belief that traditional British freedom includes the right not just to make a lot of noise – these were the loudest fireworks I had ever heard – but to be extremely rude. There has been a much-publicised row about members blacking their faces in order to look like Zulus – a practice which the bonfire society concerned is anxious to abandon.
I asked a Nigerian woman who is studying just down the road at Sussex University how she found the event. She said:
“It’s very nicely done. It’s very beautiful. I think it gets you interested in the history not only of the town but of England in general. It’s a way of helping the youth and the young generally to find out what happened many years ago.”
The event does constitute a kind of pageant of history, with no worry about trying to make the whole thing consistent. Part of the charm of it is that you have no idea what you are going to see next. I was amazed to see a French guillotine making its way down the street, accompanied by a banner in French.
But of course the whole performance will strike some people as utterly tasteless – which to those who rejoice in this event is a great part of the point.
At the hot dog stall, I happened to fall into conversation with one of the men who built the Johnson effigy. He added some details which I had missed when it passed me in a crowded street, and also when I saw it being destroyed by fireworks:
“Jacob Rees-Mogg, or Moggy as we called him, was a half human, half cat licking the blood from Theresa May’s head off Boris’s leg.
“On the back was a packet of Snobyobs [a play on the Hobnob biscuit], and Boris has his foot on a packet of Viagra.”
Here is the Big Society in action, community activism at its finest. Until you have been destroyed in effigy at Lewes, you have not really begun to make an impact.