A blazing star

26.org.ukJust remembered it’s November 5th, so I thought I would republish a smokey section from my contribution to the book Common Ground. My chapter – On a Monkey’s Birthday: Into the heart of Belloc’s Sussex – was about the remarkable Hilaire Belloc, and I attempt to give the prose some fire by imagining Belloc on Bonfire Night in Lewes – the spiritual home of the 5th. The explosions, religious undercurrents, rebellious overcurrents and sheer social exuberance of the 5th in Lewes resonate with the life of this soldier, land agent (failed), journalist, novelist, poet, Member of Parliament, biographer, lecturer, Roman Catholic apologist, and curmudgeon. Here’s the excerpt (and an additional passage from the chapter, on Belloc and language). You can also read the whole chapter here, if you like.

A blazing star turns Lewes night to day. The oratorio of shrieks and bellows and wails begins. This humpy necropolis at the meeting point of Downs and Weald is shuddering its ghosts from the mortar. Bonfire. A wake. You are not welcome, however. Lewes Bonfire Council suggests ‘outsiders’ stay away. Police issue health and safety warnings. Trains are cancelled. Parking is impossible. It rains. Seventy five thousand people turn up.

I can’t find reference to Bonfire in Belloc. Perhaps it offended his Catholicity, for tonight, as always on the fifth, an effigy of a Pope will burn. The infamous ‘No Popery’ banner is already flying down by the Ouse. It’s normally a pleasant gift shop area. I’ve often wanted to add a banner declaring ‘No Pot Pourri’.

There is serious history at play, however. Bonefires burned across Sussex in the 1550s. According to John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, four Protestants went to the stake in my home village, Mayfield. Seventeen more were burnt outside the Star Inn in Lewes. A memorial in Mayfield depicts logs and flames and declares ‘Thy Word is Truth’. I think of Matilda Who Told Lies, And Was Burned to Death. Remembrance of the martyrs was introduced to Bonfire in the 1850s – a Protestant response to contemporary political and religious issues.

Torches are lit, the procession begins, rook-scarers split cold air, and the bacchantes chant “Oi! Oi! Oi!”. There are Cavaliers. Zulus. Mongolian warriors. Siamese dancers. American Indians. Pirates. Space aliens. A man dressed as Herne the Hunter. A long line of mixed metaphors. Despite the anti-popery, there’s something Bellocose about this combination of dark fuming and expressive zest, this farrago of black powders. Effigies of ‘Enemies of Bonfire’ – usually local officials – are paraded on pikes, but there’s also a sense of togetherness and vitality. Sectarian prejudice is a persistent but feint stain. ‘Popery’ has become shorthand for authoritarianism. We Wunt Be Druvvery is in the air, spiced with a smoky Bellocian verve.

Following a Society to its firesite, we find ourselves mixed up in the ranks of torchbearers. A marshall dressed as a Wren screeches “Respect the procession! Respect the procession!” The pyre is lit. The Archbishop of Bonfire hollers his sermon into the wind… to blazes with identity cards… Bonfire prayers rumble. Guy’s head explodes. I raise a glass and a cheddar sandwich to Belloc. He would probably see all this as a memorial service for lost ways – a remembrance. But I think we can choose our fate. The real story of Sussex is one of resurgence not passive wistfulness. All the energy stored in the trees; the budding promise in the ground; the enduring local passion for the land; the vibrant spirit that filled the alleys of this town tonight – Sussex still has what it takes to inspire exuberant feelings, exuberant words. It may have ceded ground, but there is life in the old kingdom yet.’

And here’s an additional excerpt, this time on Belloc and language:

‘Belloc’s best work is a counter-blast to current anxieties over readers’ attention spans, to our timid aspiration to write ‘plain English’ that gets to the point quickly. He wanders around his point like a farmer inspecting a cow at market; ruminating, prodding, prompting, proposing. He sets up rumbustious dialogues that stretch and strain his themes. Even his interior monologues have a sense of conversation and exchange; of opinion forming as the writing unfolds.

I find Belloc a particularly fine writer of paragraphs, rather than sentences. And long paragraphs at that. Here’s just a section of a paragraph I love, from an essay called The Mowing of a Field(1906):

‘Good verse is best written on good paper with an easy pen, not with a lump of coal on a whitewashed wall. The pen thinks for you; and so does the scythe mow for you if you treat it honorably and in a manner that makes it recognize its service. The manner is this. You must regard the scythe as a pendulum that swings, not as a knife that cuts. A good mower puts no more strength into his stroke than into his lifting. Again, stand up to your work. The bad mower, eager and full of pain, leans forward and tries to force the scythe through the grass. The good mower, serene and able, stands as nearly straight as the shape of the scythe will let him, and follows up every stroke closely, moving his left foot forward. Then also let every stroke get well away. Mowing is a thing of ample gestures, like drawing a cartoon. Then, again, get yourself into a mechanical and repetitive mood: be thinking of anything at all but your mowing, and be anxious only when there seems some interruption to the monotony of the sound. In this mowing should be like one’s prayers—all of a sort and always the same, and so made that you can establish a monotony and work them, as it were, with half your mind: that happier half, the half that does not bother.’

Holler boys, holler! Have an explosive night.


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