Lewes Bonfire Night
Lewes Bonfire Night
On November 5, I was sitting in the flat, sort of put out that we didn’t really have any concrete plans to celebrate that ever-so-English holiday, Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night. I’d been looking forward to it so much but we hadn’t even seen so much as a firework so I googled Bonfire Night. What came up was a little article about the Lewes Bonfire Night celebrations. What New Orleans is to Mardi Gras, Lewes is to Bonfire Night. This little town, just half an hour from the southern coast of England, has the largest, most elaborate and most flamboyant celebrations in the world.
So, four of us made a last minute decision to take a train down to Lewes (pronounced Lewis) the next day, Monday the 6th. We bought our tickets for the hour-long train ride, hoping to find a seat. No such luck. Thousands of people take the trains down the country into Lewes just for this one night, so we stood most of the way. It was completely and utterly worth it.
Our British Life and Culture class took a trip to the East End of London the other day, just four or five stops down the Central line. I’d had few impressions of the East End before visiting but the few things I’d heard about it weren’t good.
The East End is infamous rather than famous. It has gained a reputation for poverty, overcrowding, and crime, going all the way back to its most famous association (and one of its most unfortunate): Jack the Ripper, who murdered his prostitute victims in the Whitechapel district. East End residents understandably hate the Ripper attraction, although several enterprising people have managed to make small fortunes leading “Jack the Ripper tours” at night, taking tourists around the cramped and cobbled allies where the murders occurred.
In addition, a pretty controversial Scottish comedian joked this year that because the Olympics were taking place in the East End, the athletes would have to hone their skills even more than usual in order to discern which of the gun shots they heard was the starting rifle. That’s enough to give you an idea of the East End’s reputation.
Since the 17th century, the East End has been home to “outsiders” of various kinds. In the late 1600s, large numbers of Huguenots settled in the East End, fleeing persecution in France. They were weavers by trade so the area became the center of London’s weaving industry. Several of the streets still have French names. The Irish, many of them also weavers, came to the East End in the 18th century. At the end of the 19th century, Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe came to the area. In the 1880s, there were over 150 synagogues in the East End. From the 1960s to now, the area has been the home of a large Bangladeshi population. Brick Lane is known as the Curry Mile, for all its Indian restaurants.
A street sign showing the French Huguenot legacy and the more recent Bangladeshi influence.
When I proposed going to Abbey Road the other day, I was advised that it wasn’t really a thing worth doing. Apparently it’s crowded and the drivers in the area have gotten so frustrated with tourists walking back and forth across the street that they don’t stop any more, they just honk and leave it to you to get out of the way.
Still, I think we might go early in the morning and take our chances.
Does it matter?—losing your legs?…
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after football
To gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter?—losing your sight?…
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.
Do they matter?—those dreams from the pit?…
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they’ll know that you’ve fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.
… O but every one
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will
never be done.
Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?