Where 5 November is a way of life

Observations on bonfire night

Lewes, in East Sussex, is usually the picture of a sleepy market town. But on one night of the year - 5 November - it becomes a scene of savagery and confusion. Thousands show up to watch a bonfire celebration unique in its extremity and passion. I certainly wasn't going to miss it on this, the 400th anniversary.

At 7pm, the town's half-dozen bonfire societies began their procession down the narrow High Street - a surreal cavalcade of the traditional (Morris dancers, brass bands), the politically incorrect (Red Indians, blacked-up Zulus) and the bizarre (a PVC-clad urban drum troupe, a gaggle of suffragettes). The marchers held banners proclaiming things like "Death or Glory", "No Popery" or "We Burn to Remember" (a reference to the 17 Lewes Protestants burned at the stake under Queen Mary in 1557). "Bonfire boys" pushed flaming tumbrels, into which deafening bangers were tossed.

Every year the societies create huge, explosive-packed effigies, often of Guy Fawkes or the Pope, or of local hate-figures such as unpopular town councillors or traffic wardens. Sometimes these Spitting Image-like figures have a scabrous political dimension: during the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, there was an effigy of the president dressed as "Captain Viagra", clutching a phallic missile emblazoned with the words "In Gob We Thrust". This year's effigies had a patriotic flavour: one society paraded a giant bust of Nelson; another had a British bulldog with the head of Osama Bin Laden emerging from its posterior and the words "Stop terrorists having a blast" on its side.

When the procession ends, marchers and spectators make their way to individual bonfire sites. At each, the ritual is the same. On a scaffolded gantry, three "priests" dressed in cassocks and eye-goggles address a sermon to the crowd, which retaliates with cries of "Burn the Pope" and a volley of bangers. So ferocious is the barrage that the priests are soon enveloped in smoke. Then the bonfires are lit and the fireworks begin. While these are invariably spectacular, extra drama is created by the proximity of the other societies' celebrations. The sky is lit up with not just one but several displays, and the crowds respond with competitive jibes ("Call that a rocket!").

It is this competitive element that explains, perhaps, why Lewes, a town of only 30,000, is able to put on such an elaborate - and costly - celebration. In Lewes, "the Fifth" is not just an annual diversion, but a way of life. No sooner is one year's bonfire night over than planning for the next begins.