Lewes and the Alex Salmond bonfire controversy

Contains one mild expletive – mine.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

What a febrile world is social media.

Yesterday was 5th November if you hadn’t noticed – Guy Fawkes Day. Gunpowder, treason and plot. Bonfires and fireworks from Penzance to Stornoway and most places in between. Kids small and large ooh-ing and aah-ing at municipal and community displays lighting up the autumnal night.

But stop. What is this? Another dastardly insult to the proud Scottish nation from those nasty racist English, in particular the good if hitherto unknown folk of the East Sussex town of Lewes.

For they have the biggest and best bonfires of all. They make a veritable industry out of it. Think Notting Hill carnival. Think the Siena Palio. Think Rio carnival. For Scots, think Up Helly Aa.

Organised groups from different areas of the town and nearby places compete to put on the best displays for their own special 5th November, which as well as Guy Fawkes commemorates 17 martyrs burnt at the stake in the town in the 16th century. You can read all about the Lewes bonfire celebrations here.

Best of all, and I do mean best as you will see, they construct effigies of famous people, parade them through their town and consign them to the flames. No one powerful seems to be immune from the jollity. On a quick search of Google Images I spotted David Cameron, Angela Merkel, the Pope, Colonel Gaddafi and Barack Obama.

Only this year they made a fatal mistake. Two of their bonfire societies chose to construct effigies of Alex Salmond. Here’s one of them.

An effigy of Scottish National party leader Alex Salmond in Lewes

I only found this out yesterday morning when Twitter and Facebook came alive with denunciation:

  • the images were offensive
  • they insulted our first minister
  • worse than insulting Alex Salmond, they included ‘treasured national symbols.’ One was the Loch Ness Monster, an imaginary creature invented in the 1930s to boost tourism
  • the same effigy included a ‘Yes’ badge and the legend ‘45%’ on a wooden spoon, belittling the democratic triumph of the Scottish people in their independence referendum (mathematical note to offended parties – 45% is less than 50%. If you get 45% of a vote it’s not a triumph, you’ve lost)
  • and so on and so on.

To prove the iniquity of the whole enterprise someone condemned the ‘racism’ of an East Sussex County Council tweet that said

A sneak preview of Alex Salmond and Nessie ahead of tonight’s bonfire in Lewes – it just rolled up at County Hall

and attached an image of the second effigy:

Lewes 2

Within an hour or two the wimps (other words are available) at the council had deleted their tweet and issued another emphasising that the effigies ‘have NO connection to ESCC.’

Unbelievably, local police were said to be investigating a complaint about the effigies. Doubtless the complaint was made online and whoever was fool enough to do so should have been sent on their way with the electronic equivalent of a clip around the lug.

Meantime, other offended people were combing images of past Lewes bonfire nights. They found some burning crosses here, so ‘Ku Klux Klan.’ A sign saying ‘No Popery’ there, so ‘Bigotry.’ And tucked away in one corner of one photo, one individual who seemed to have blacked up for some reason. See? ‘RACISM!’ Case proven. God, the English must hate us.

Except that if they looked a bit deeper, actually just that one click away (the link to  the Lewes bonfire celebrations above), they’d find the truth.

Inconvenient things, truths. Here’s one of mine.

It’s wonderful that the bonfire societies of Lewes do all this.

It’s part of a long tradition of carnivals and folk celebrations that, let’s not pussyfoot around this, take the piss out of powerful people. Powerful people who want to mould us and society to their own image and beliefs. They need taking down a peg or two occasionally, even the democratically elected ones.

And, perversely you might say, the powerful ones, at least the democratic politicians, love it all. What’s worse than being parodied? Ignored. Ask any cartoonist who produces a vicious image of some politico only to get a phone call from them the next day along the lines of ‘Er, would you be willing to sell me the original?’ I don’t think Alex Salmond would have room for any unused effigies in his downstairs toilet but perhaps the National Museum of Scotland might like to put in a bid for one. That’s a serious suggestion.

I’ve been accused of being obsessed with the SNP and with Alex Salmond on this blog although no one apart from the most hostile or ignorant reader could believe this post is really about the first minister. Indeed, he seems to have entered into the spirit of the thing, albeit with a slightly inaccurate sting in the tail, saying last night

I’m in pretty good company – Angela Merkel got the burning treatment from the East Sussex Conservative council. I think their judgment is askew but if they think I’m a threat to the Westminster establishment like Guy Fawkes, they are right.

Whether this year’s Lewes company is that good is a moot point as one of the other effigies on display was of Vladimir Putin in a mankini (if you want to provoke a response I’d be more worried about annoying Vlad than Eck).

Here’s a second truth.

Two groups come out of this badly.

First, those in Sussex (council, police, bonfire societies) who reacted so pathetically to the hyper-sensitivity of a relatively small number of complainants.

Second, the complainants themselves, mostly but not wholly Scots, who take offence at every perceived slight and are devoid of any wider understanding, not least of humour and satire. Sadly, the words chip and shoulder come to mind.

Finally, there are plenty of ironies in this 24-hour wonder. Here’s one. The Lewes bonfire celebrations in this 100th anniversary year of the first world war are remembering those who fell in war. On the Lewes bonfire web site there is a YouTube video of a poignant song about the death of a soldier in that war – The Green Fields of France. The soldier is Scottish. The song was written by a Scot. The song was on the web site before the morons started jumping up and down yesterday.

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12 Responses to Lewes and the Alex Salmond bonfire controversy

  1. greenhamwoman says:

    Oh thank you so much, for these words of moderation. At last!


  2. Paul Attard says:

    Amen! There is no accounting for idiots. Proceed as planned!


  3. spiker says:

    I am still in total shock at the pettyminded people who complained about this. Us Scots were known as a nation that likes a bit of banter, doesn’t take ourselves too serious and has a good sense of humour. This whole incident has shown us to be the complete opposite. It has shown the 45’s to be narrowminded bigots who act like petulant children and have a temper tantrum when we don’t get our own way. I am totally disgusted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rudolf The Red says:

      it has shown a very very small number of folk to be small minded and humourless – did you see alex salmond’s response?


  4. Really nice piece. I still fondly remember the 1 Lewes fireworks display that I attended some years ago now. It was, lets say ‘memorable’ for a non-Lewes chap.


  5. Bonfire Society Member says:

    Very balanced piece and good to see some common sense. Bonfire Societies are run by volunteers who spend the whole year raising funds, and months preparing to put on the best show on earth (I am biased ;-)). They have nothing to do with the council whatsoever. Fun is poked at the “establishment” and no one is safe from being caricatured. It is very healthy for our democracy that the high and mighty are brought down to earth every now and again.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. John says:

    To be the subject of an effigy for any of the Bonfire societies in Lewes is not an insult, it’s a great compliment. He should be proud he’s notable enough to have made the grade! Guy Fawkes appears each year as himself as does the Pope of the 1550’s, not the current one, they are the “baddies”.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. mary says:

    As a Scot living in England with a partner who hails from Sussex I spent a lot of time yesterday trying to explain online that lampooning Alex, who is fair game as a politician, does not amount to hate crime, racism or national humiliation.
    This piece does it beautifully but there are those who will not be mollified as they love their victim status too much and see this as manna from above.


  8. georgie says:

    it seems that the press are stirring the cauldron a little more each year, due to lewes bonfire being an easy target.

    i’m a big leftie and i think if i’d seen all the hoo ha about this, i would probably have jumped to the conclusion that lewesians are akin to tubbs and edward.

    BUT i am a lewesian myself, and have grown up with the whole thing and so see the story behind the few images that the press have concentrated on.

    it’s a good lesson in not jumping to conclusions when you only know a bit of the story.

    and thank god for lewes bonfire night and its poking fun at the ‘great and the good’. not enough of that these bloody days!


  9. freqeist1 says:

    1557 Pope Pius V


  10. Is not the local Lewes MP a Jock?


    • Roger White says:

      Hi Rupert. Thanks for commenting. Except in the obvious cases I’m not an expert in where MPs come from but intrigued by your claim I checked the ever-reliable (?) Wikipedia who confirm your understanding. Their MP is Lib Dem Norman Baker who seems to have been born in Aberdeen (news to me, even though I live there). However, famille Baker moved to Romford when wee Norm was 11. Since he now lives in Sussex it seems up to three areas of the UK could claim him for their own if they were so minded. Incidentally, the reason I’ve decided to do your research for you is your use of the word ‘Jock.’ People can call me what they like and usually do on Twitter (@rogerlwhite … ). But although I’m English/British not Scottish I do have a mild sympathy with Scots when the English call them ‘Jocks.’ Bit of a pain in the rear end for them and best avoided unless you want to drive them to another referendum. But maybe you do. Just saying.


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