Bonfire Night in Lewes: nothing prepared me for Matt Hancock and his naked companion

I was reasonably sure that I could live my whole life without agreeing once with Jacob Rees-Mogg, and I nearly made it; then he said he loved fireworks. Unhappily, I also love fireworks. This year I went to Lewes in Sussex, which is like the Glastonbury of setting fire to things, the pilgrimage of the truly faithful, the place where there are too many firework displays for a firework lover to see them all, although unlike at Glastonbury, you can concurrently hear them all.

I had never been before, and had heard so much about it that I was afraid it might not meet my expectations. It turns out that if your expectation is that a lot of things will explode, it is almost impossible to be disappointed. “Good servant, bad master,” they always say about fire, forgetting all the other jobs it can do: excellent street entertainer, suspense-builder, child-minder. I saw a four-year-old carrying a flare considerably longer than their own leg; that kid was definitely not about to misbehave or take a break to eat raisins.

You couldn’t have this much incendiarism without a lot of planning, and it takes all year, with a Captain of Effigies, a Captain of Torches and a Captain of Fiery Pieces. It sounds like a circle of managerial hell, where three people have been given broadly the same job, and spend the rest of their careers engaged exclusively in schemes to tear each other down, but because it’s a leisure activity, it seems to work. Also, you have to think twice about making an enemy around this much petrol.

Besides, the chain of command is really clear: the Captain of Effigies is king, since this is where you get to take the nation’s temperature. You could dispense with opinion polling and just sit in for a year on the Lewes effigy meetings, to see where people really are on the issues of the day. But you do have to put the hours in. If you weren’t in the room where it happened, you have no chance of deciphering them.

So there was a Dominic Cummings, wearing glasses, having an eye test. A lot to unpick, here – why was the optician wearing nothing but a lab coat and a loin cloth? Or was it a nappy? The message was pretty clear, though: we’ve had enough of your bullshit, Cummings, and just because we’re about to set fire to it, that does not mean it’s forgotten.

Matt Hancock, meanwhile, was modelled after Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss, with a naked woman draped across him, and here the symbolism really broke down for me – was it actually his girlfriend, or was it the beleaguered NHS, or was it the ailing nation, and can anyone hereabouts give me a quick low-down on what Rodin’s original message was, as that might help? Nobody I was with at the time could, as they were engaged full time trying to figure out how many tons of potatoes the chip shop had got through, relative to a regular Friday.

A crow-masked man in religious robes was holding a giant needle over a globe, but – here we go again – was the globe the virus or the Earth; was the figure an avenging angel or a bringer of death; and what were we cheering when we set it alight? Had we accidentally joined an anti-vax protest? Oh, and there was Joe Biden, but he was either a chicken (Afghanistan?), or a turkey (general, light-hearted anti-Americanism).

There’s a niche life lesson, here – that papier-mache is an incredibly challenging medium for biting political satire. But I can still draw broad conclusions: everyone’s sick of the government, and all its many tendrils; they are also pretty sick of the pandemic; they really love setting fire to things.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, incidentally, concluded his paean to gunpowder by asserting nobody wants an Oliver Cromwell-style government, “cracking down on every possible bit of fun that people have”. In fact, Cromwell, while heavily anti bears and Christmas, was fine with fireworks but this is a feature of new Conservatism, redirecting civic discontent anywhere but where it belongs. The people of Lewes aren’t having any of it.

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