If the English have a national day, it is not St. Georges's Day
on April 23, which scarcely anyone remembers, except for the small
patrician society of the Knights of St. George, but Bonfire Night
on November 5. This is genuinely national in its extent, but is
it national in its symbolism? Its origins, of course, date back
to the attempt of the English Catholic, Guy Fawkes, and his accomplices
to blow up the King and Parliament in1605, and it does seem that
the date has been remembered more or less annually ever since.
Today the significance of the event is purely historical, even
ahistorical, at least for the vast majority of English people.
In Brighton, for example, as in many other English towns and cities
no doubt, the main public event of this autumn night is the firework
display at the local sports stadium, which is organised by the
Rotary Club; profits, as would be expected, going to charity. The
point of the proceedings is the spectacular firework display.
It is a family event and the spirit of the occasion is a purely
But seven miles away from Brighton, in the historic town of Lewes
with its Norman castle, its narrow medieval streets, and its beautiful
flint faced buildings, Bonfire Night is celebrated rather differently.
Here the festivities consist of the torch light processions of
the six Lewes bonfire societies, which take it in turn to march
round the narrow streets of the town centre and back to their assembly
points. The marchers are made up of costumed contingents of pirates,
smugglers, redcoats, 'Red Indians', crusaders, sailors, angels,
Scottish highlanders, and so forth. The processional part of the
evening ends with the United Grand Procession when the societies
march together before splitting off to go to their own firesites
at the edge of town for the customary firework display and bonfire,
except that is for one society, the Cliffe, which refuses to take
part in the Grand Procession.