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Notes from the underground: 15/11/2010

There’s one date in the calendar I look forward to more than my own birthday, Christmas Eve and the last day of term combined: 5 November. Bonfire Night in Lewes is something everyone must try at least once in their lifetime – not for the faint of heart, the celebration draws crowds from all over the UK, this year amassing an astonishing 50,000 people in the tiny town. The fireworks are beautiful, the parades are deafening, and the bonfire is a terrifying, awe-inspiring thing to behold.

The first event of the evening is the parade. You have to fight your way through to the high street and position yourself in the second row of people from the front if you can – due to bangers occasionally being thrown in the direction of the crowd by the stripe-shirted bonfire boys, only the very bravest stand at the front! Mock funeral processions, dancing skeletons; brass bands, hooded figures carrying burning crosses are but a few of the bewitching sights you’ll see marching down the street. There are also huge carnival floats trailing tinsel-like strings of bangers, which are periodically set alight and used to temporarily deafen everyone within a half-mile radius. The floats are always beautifully crafted and often tongue-in-cheek: this year the crowds were treated to the sight of a roughly twenty-foot papier-mache Nick Clegg as a human cannonball inside a cannon the size of a bus, as well as a massive Barack Obama reclining on a deckchair off the gulf of Mexico (the latter of which prompted more than one “is that OK? I don’t think that’s OK…” from the crowd). After the parades, the crowds wound their way through the cobbled streets to the bonfire sites.

Several of the sites charge about a fiver to get in, so naturally the students and cheapskates swarm to the free sites: ours was Commercial Square. Erected near the trees – but a safe distance from the audience – was a fifty-foot Wicker Man-esque bonfire, the heat of which scorched the eyebrows of the crowd. We were then treated to the bizarre sight of the massive Obama exploding, and – as is tradition for Lewesians – an effigy of the Pope bursting into a shower of sparkling fireworks.

The fireworks themselves are the finest you’re likely to find anywhere in the UK. No expense is spared: they’re deafening, they’re colourful, and you get the worrying feeling that they might make you cry a bit.

Big, beautiful and eerily pagan, this is a 5 November you’ll certainly never forget.

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