A trove of articles by us, from past and present. Scroll down to read:
Design writing, by Tim
Naming and shaming, by Tim
Unfinished conclusions, by Tom
On a monkey’s birthday, by Tim
Design writing — A ‘Private View’ comment piece by Tim Rich, published in Design Week magazine in 2003.
Note: I used to write a regular column in Design Week, free-ranging across all sorts of subjects from branding and graphic design to, er, what we should do about our over-crowded cemeteries. It was great fun. It also required me to analyse and distill what I really thought about certain issues and practices. Sometime in 2003 I decided to put down some lines on the role of writers in design. It ruffled a few feathers and gained me some new friends. In fact, it was how Tom and I came to meet. I still believe the quality of writing in design is far from good enough, and the design industry continues to suffer a skills shortage in terms of talented writers. Here’s an edited extract from that column. Responses very welcome.
There’s been a lot of talk about the role of writing in design. Unfortunately, one or two generalisms have come to dominate what is a complex and fundamentally important subject.
For example, there’s that moronic mantra ‘People don’t actually read these days, do they?’ Clearly many do – people aren’t buying ‘Harry Potter’ books for the typography, after all. And perhaps the question we should really be asking is ‘How are people reading these days?’
Then there’s the snarky truism ‘Designers can’t spell’, a comment made so often it has become a cliché. What’s particularly irritating about this barb is that spelling is far less valuable than an appreciation of writing. I’m currently working with a designer who has severe dyslexia, yet his passion for design writing is inspiring.
Another problem with the writing in design discussion is that it has been rather one-sided. The focus has been on what designers are doing wrong, and how their prioritisation of the visual over the written has limited creativity. But there are other matters to consider here – just how good are the writers working in design? And are writers doing enough to inspire designers and clients to think about written language in new and inventive ways?
How good are the design writers out there? Well, I’ve encountered excellent writers – people who can really engage the reader, who care about the look and feel of their writing, who love to collaborate with designers, who strive to do fresh things with language. But there aren’t enough like them, and design agencies that recognise the commercial and creative importance of writing can be forgiven for feeling frustrated by what is effectively a skills shortage.
I’ve been working with a number of agencies to address this problem, helping them to find and develop writers they can work with regularly. That word ‘develop’ is key, because many good writers need help to evolve from copywriting to the more holistic approach of design writing. But developing talent is one thing, finding writers prepared to open themselves up to new ways of working is another. Indeed, I find many copywriters to be apathetic, cynical and unimaginative. Many are unprofessional to the point of being socially dysfunctional.
Writers complain about designers being virtually illiterate, but many copywriters are visually illiterate. They produce dense lines of ‘copy’ (horrid word) and expect the designer to do the rest. This is peculiar, as the first wafts of meaning from a piece of writing come from how the words look, not from how they read. Shouldn’t a writer care passionately about every aspect of how meaning is produced? Shouldn’t we be involving ourselves in discussions about the type and images that might work with (or against) our words, for example? And how many writers recognise the value designers bring to the writing process? Designers can be wonderful editors, adept at thinking about the entire reading experience, identifying information hierarchies, and helping ideas and messages to flow by shaping, emphasising and manipulating words. Many writers seem to resent these skills, rather than celebrate them.
The design process is key. Design writing is a plastic art that works best when writer and designer think beyond A4 from the start of a project. We only need to look at the formalised integration of art director and copywriter in advertising to see how it can be done. Of course, there are projects where there’s no role for a writer, and design writers don’t need to be in-house, but when they are involved they should be central, not peripheral. Some design agencies treat writers like suppliers rather than partners, but just how hard are writers fighting to be included? I wonder.
Ultimately, these issues need to be addressed because the quality of writing in design isn’t good enough. Both readers and clients are being let down by poor content. There’s too much bimbo design around – looks good, says nothing – and that’s the responsibility of writers as well as designers.
Naming and shaming — A ‘Private View’ comment piece by Tim Rich, published in Design Week magazine in 2002.
After years of campaigning for a higher public and commercial profile, ‘Design’ is now a regular topic of discussion in our national and business media. Unfortunately, it’s for our part in a stream of controversial corporate name changes, such as ‘Consignia’, rather than evidence of design creating positive change.
Add this coverage to the media’s rages about expensive identity flops (think BA tail-fins) and a growing unease about the proliferation and power of brands in society, and the beginnings of a wave of cynicism about design and designers appears to be swelling and foaming.
The critical temperature was already high before Consignia appeared. Names such as Diageo, Accenture, Uniq and Innogy were derided as examples of pomposity and navel-gazing. People were also fed up with companies trying to evade real issues using business-speak, especially weasely terms like ‘right-sizing’ and ‘re-engineering’.
It was into this context that the Consignia identity was launched – a bit like throwing a gerbil into a snake pit. Here was a popular organisation with lots of heritage adopting a flawed identity strategy and expressing it through a clichéd visual mark and a semi-meaningless name.
We certainly do need frank exchanges of views to help keep us alert to cant and manipulation. And there are plenty of verbal and visual identity projects that get it wrong. But some current criticism looks like the product of lazy cynicism rather than informed scepticism. And it’s catching. In the current atmosphere almost any new, high profile name and identity is assured of a negative reception simply for being a new, high profile name and identity.
‘Cash-strapped consultants go brand-crazy’, a story on bbc.co.uk on 18 June by James Arnold, a BBC News Online business journalist, exemplifies the problem. He criticises Accenture, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young and Monday for adopting “left-field”, “absurd” and “crazy” identities, but is sarcastic about others for their conservative approach: “Arthur Andersen became – stunningly – Andersen …” writes Arnold. And later: “‘McKinsey & Company is a management consulting firm,’ is the daring tagline on one firm’s website.”
Knee-jerk rejection and sardonic put-downs are no substitute for analysis. If, say, Orange or Apple Computer were introduced now they would probably be met with a barrage of abuse for their names and their marks.
I think PwC Consulting’s Wolff Olins-inspired name change to Monday has suffered unfair barracking, for example. Some of the comments in the recent Vox Pop (Design Week, 20 June 2002) reminded me of school playground discussions where no one is brave enough to say they like something unless everyone else says it first. The name Monday has a whiff of pretension about it, but it works. It’s simple to say, write and read, it’s memorable and there are some fertile mental and emotional connections to be made between company name and company behaviour. It’s certainly more interesting than PwC Consulting.
Of course, clients and designers don’t always help themselves. The campaign accompanying the launch of a new company or identity often says ‘look at our new name’ rather than ‘this is what we do, this is how we do it, and this is why we do it’. This statement from the Monday website gets it only two-thirds right, for example:
“WHAT MONDAY MEANS:
Monday is a fresh start, a positive attitude, part of everyone’s life.
Monday is a real name, universally understood and easy to remember.
Monday is confident. It stands out and it stands for something.”
Fine until the third point. How and why is it confident? And it may stand out, but what does it stand for? They don’t explain – yet.
Regardless, I think the name Monday will stick. In fact, if they get the visual and verbal language right, Monday could become a celebrated success. Names are likes trees, they need time to grow above and below ground. Consignia was a dead tree planted in place of an old oak; I think Monday deserves a few years in the soil before axes are sharpened.
That reminds me of something Paul Rand says in Graphic Design In America: A Visual Language History: “A good solution, in addition to being right, should have the potential for longevity. Yet I don’t think one can design for permanence. One designs for function, for usefulness, rightness, beauty. Permanence is up to God.”
While God’s making up his, her or its mind, let’s share our critical thinking about the function, usefulness, rightness and beauty of new work, but without rushing to reject. Cynicism within and around the design industry is going to scare clients and designers away from innovative, unusual or challenging ideas. And if that happens we’ll persuade neither the public, nor business, to put aside their cynicism about us.
PS More on naming here.
By Tom Lynham, 2010
What is this obsession with finishing things? Does life really become more manageable with beginnings, middles and ends, or is ‘finished’ just a comfort zone? The point at which any act concludes is purely subjective. We are in a perpetual state of unfinished everything. Our emotions exceed the chemicals that manufacture them. Even when dead we carry on living through the tinctures we leave behind. The economics of creativity demand that we deliver conclusions to our clients and audiences. But dare to think that an idea might have been realised, and the restless invent-a-holic inside you screams that ‘finished’ is a merely a contrivance; a close relative of “Are we there yet?” and “When are you going to grow up?”
During the 1980s I was a partner in a London based prototype workshop and an ideas store in West Berlin. The arrangement emerged from the frustration of sourcing adventurous manufacturers, and the aggravation of trying to show work in other people’s spaces. The beauty of our own premises went something like this: Monday (London) big idea, drawings and models. Tuesday: exploring functionality of emerging prototype. Wednesday: destroy prototype. Thursday: re-jigged manufacturing techniques inspire re-configured prototype. Friday: testing and pushing. Saturday: finessing, paint and tweaks. Sunday: Load truck and drive to Berlin. Monday: fledgling object attracting attention in the Schlüterstraße windows. This fast-track route from inception to reaction was incredibly compelling because the more we dreamed it – the more it happened.
The Cold War was running on empty. East and West Berlin were like Siamese twins spitting with sibling rivalry. Tin-pot generals, faceless apparatchiks and secret service operatives spooked each other to the edge of reason and back. The politicians slugged it out in phoney slanging matches. World War II was still unfinished business. Peace had never been declared. Each side of the city exaggerated its extremities: the West in conspicuous consumption, the East in a dreary repression. The opposing powers played a swaggering game of brinkmanship. American Forces Network Radio flaunted itself as ‘…a beacon of hope in a vortex of tyranny’. Soviet propaganda bragged that life behind the iron curtain was ‘…imaginative, inventive and open to the world’. We stewed in a neurotic pleasure-dome. We danced till dawn in clubs fitted out like jungles, or tropical beaches, or giant padded cells. Disaffected German youth flocked to West Berlin for its licentiousness and the Berliner ID card, which exempted them from national service. Strangely nihilistic student riots only succeeded in reducing the windows of the precious Ku’damm boutiques to smithereens. Our guardian angel was Laurie Anderson, and the anthem was O Superman for its atonal and asymmetric astringency. She conjured up a nowhere of non-places. She warped, manipulated, deconstructed and sharpened our senses by bending perception. She squeezed her voice through digital interfaces until they morphed into synthesized apparitions. We lived for the moment because the end of the world almost but never quite happened.
West Germany was in ferment; its post-war renaissance driven by a government quick to suppress any activism that could jeopardise the ‘economic miracle’. But this vision of a spotless society on the road to recovery was pockmarked by the bombings, kidnaps and assassinations of the Red Army Faction. They claimed to speak for a new generation alienated by a post-war bourgeoisie papering over the horrors of the Third Reich, but they were just another bunch of thugs. The nuclear stand-off made Washington and Moscow equally tetchy. Twenty years earlier the USSR President Nikita Khrushchev joked that Free Berlin represented the ‘Testicles of the West’. Eastern Bloc irritation at ‘capitalist provocation’ was signalled with petulant border closures. We were stranded in 10-kilometre tail-backs of trucks on the DDR autobahn corridor. The lethal no-man’s-land, machine gun towers, booby-trapped razor wire and grizzly militia added up to a surreal brutality. The Wall filleted streets down the middle, and although contact – even waving – was strictly forbidden, East and West hausfraus in carved up neighbourhoods pretended to clean windows in unison. The 365-metre high revolving telecommunications tower in the secular East was known affectionately as ‘God’s Revenge’ for its phenomena of transubstantiating rays of sunshine into a cock-eyed crucifix. Even U-Bahn stations became ‘other countries’, as you on Platform West stared across the tracks at themon Platform East.
My creativity was evolving into narratives around schisms, the attraction of opposites, the clash of similarities, and the sparks that arc across loose ends. Deliberately unfinishing provoked in-betweeny stuff that lurched towards even more revealing excursions. Unfinishing meant unlearning completion. Falling off the straight and narrow. Neither coming nor going. I had been increasingly working with wood because of its unfinished qualities – from the germinating seed, to the insatiable roots, to the ever-expanding branches, to the cycles of the seasons, to the felling and the drying, to the expanding and contracting, to the transformation into furniture and to numerous presences through generations of lives. The Unfinished Table began with the idea of creating a space in which opposites could meet. It also became a kind of domestic schematic that cut through the fog of familial complexity. One elevation of the table was honed to perfection with turned legs, ogee mouldings and deep golden patina. The other end appeared fresh from the timber yard complete with sealed end grain and splinters. The central area became transitional and reflected the common ground between the bi-polar madness of the times. Its form was critical because the dining table – unlike walls that divide cities – symbolised the lowering of defences and exchanges of ideas. Dinner guests who craved resolution clustered around the ‘finished’ frame of mind, whereas more spontaneous folk were drawn towards the ‘unfinished’ state of being. Ambivalent visitors who could not decide where to sit, hovered somewhere in the middle. But as the table began to work its magic and the camaraderie melted inhibitions, people moved from one end to the other, prompting animated discussions around how unfinishing can liberate us from the tyranny of THE END.
By Tim Rich
From the book Common Ground: Around Britain in 30 Writers
It started with cheese. Someone was paying tribute to Brie, that pudgy French ‘Queen of Cheeses’. This led another to repeat Henry II’s belief in the sovereignty of cheddar, a claim enhanced by the King’s purchase of 10,000lbs of the stuff in 1170. I was rather hoping we might return to our earlier dispute on whether maize is corn or corn is maize. If they are the same, why didn’t the Bible refer to ‘an ear of maize’? And would the Romans have called their Goddess of agriculture Ceres, name-giver to cereal, if they’d had the option of Maizey?
At this point a gnarled old boy wandered over, leant in and muttered “Belloc”. An insult, I thought. A High Wealden verbal slap for our under-age, under-the-influence joutering in the Rose and Crown. This magical rookery, where the crouching oaks outside are forever insinuating their splinterfingers between the weatherboards, through the thick sweet fug of logsmoke and hoptalk and dampdogpong, and down into the dark fabric of the pub.
I’d like to say there were four of us – a reflection of the book we were about to meet – but no. Three. A friend obsessive about privacy, so I’ll refer to him simply as Alfie Catt of 2 Spiked Rampion Cottages, Kiln Lane, Mayfield, East Sussex TN20 9TR. Next, Mark Cross, the extraordinarily hairy lead singer with local super-group Tolkien Heads. And then, the Holy Ghost, who we can call ‘I’.
Mark looked into the conker-brown eyes of our interruptor and said: “What on earth are you on about?” Alfie smiled in the man’s direction, and winked. I blushed like Sussex Flame.
Soft, just above the crawks and caws of the pub crowd, the man replied: “Hilaire Belloc. Talked about a cheese argument in The Four Men. Wrote an essay on cheeses, in fact. It’s called On Cheeses. Much better on Sussex matters than that gloompond Kipling over at Burrish. Frenchy. Liked a drop. Ar.” Then he turned and melted into a swaying gang of old boys murdering Hi Ho Silver Lining a cappella.
Mark, extracting a Capstan Full Strength from its coffin, said: “Good grief, clearly insane.” Alfie slurped his Harvey’s, eyes shut. I felt a cold snake of excitement slither down my spine and wondered where I could find out more about this fascinating femme écrivain, Hilary Bullock.
Turns out ‘Hilary Bullock’ wasn’t such an original mistake. Tongue in cheek, Belloc suggested he might adopt the name. Even the family grave at Our Lady of Consolation and St. Francis in West Grinstead says ‘Pray for the soul of Elodie Agnes Hogan, the wife of Hilary Belloc of this parish.’
Searching for Hilary revealed Hilaire, via some hilarity for the ferrety man who ran the village library. A forest of books, articles, careers and events loomed. Born near Paris in a violent thunderstorm. Outbreak of Franco-Prussian war three days later. Family fled to England. Childhood in Sussex. Soldier. Land agent (failed). Journalist. Novelist. Poet. Member of Parliament. Biographer. Lecturer. Religious apologist. Curmudgeon. “How profuse and pure a genius,” noted Evelyn Waugh.
His Cautionary Tales for Children (1907) and its inflammatory star Matilda were what most people knew, along with a reference to his name in The Two Ronnies (a faulty newsroom typewriter swaps each ‘e’ for an ‘o’). I – a tender and earnest reader – only wanted the sophisticated stuff and ordered The Four Men: A Farrago. I didn’t know what a farrago was; something to do with opera, I hoped. The book would join my next literary expedition. Wracked by late teenage ennui, I wandered in search of lonely sunlit spots where I might try to understand Camus or Sartre and generally inspire myself to feel alienated. I read The Stranger in a beach-dry field of straw; Nausea in the barky embrace of an apple tree. The fruit was sweet and local, the prose always from elsewhere. Sussex writing seemed stuck in a muddy rut of histrionic doggerel. There was Kipling, but I saw him as a children’s writer (my mistake). Besides, Bateman’s – his morose walled house and garden – was where on hay-scented summer nights I tested my ability to trespass, face blackened with cork soot.
While we’re loitering without intent in Rudyard’s backyard, I should explain that by ‘Sussex’ I mean rural Sussex. To write both words – Sussex and rural – creates something of a tautology as Sussex is only properly Sussex when it is rural. A place must have the smell of wood about it. There are villages and towns in the heart of the county that are not in Sussex. Where are they? Everywhere and nowhere, perhaps. If this is unclear visit Horsham. Or Uckfield (where, writes Christopher Nye in Maximum Diner, the River Uck is “a site of relentless struggle between the council and the town’s graffiti artists”). They smell of nothing, those places. In contrast, Lewes and Hastings are very woody, and most definitely in Sussex. Brighton and Hove are marvellous metropolises near Sussex. Crawley should be returned to Surrey. And Bexhill is a Kent town that has wandered down the coast into our county and refuses to go home.
Back in the reading room of some sun-dappled spinney or camomile-speckled slonk, I opened The Four Men and discovered farrago meant hotchpotch. I’ve learned since that it’s derived from the Latin word for mixed cattle fodder; a perfect root for Belloc’s discursive ramble from the Sussex-Kent border to his neck of the woods near Chichester. As a recovering Catholic who had moved with scurrilous haste from sips of sweet communion wine to illicit nights of bitter, I was relieved to find that the famously Roman Belloc preferred bibulous debate to pontification. True, he uses drinking to signal a communion between his principal characters, and there’s much breaking of bread to mark pledges, but everyone goes on to quarrel or sigh over very down-to-earth matters, from friendship, wealth and love to whether earache is worse than toothache.
Immersing myself in excellent biographies by A N Wilson and Joseph Pearce, it strikes me that Belloc was always an unfashionable writer. His religious and social prejudices did for him, perhaps. And he’s probably too prolific, uneven and outspoken to win posthumous renown in our world of unique selling propositions, brand reputation and political correctness.
Regardless, I’m drawn back by the verve and exuberance of his 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.’
And here I am sitting in London trying to let my pen think for me about Belloc. The grass won’t cut. Time to head south.
Shipley. The village he made home. Very Sussex. Very woody. It’s November 5th. Stout-black clouds are brewing to the north, but here by his windmill and house – King’s Land he called it – we have sunshine and short performances of rain. Electric air suggests thunderclaps to follow. Thrushes are singing with the joy of a wet worm feast. A dryad wobbles past on a bike mumbling “Weather”, or “Whether”. We call this climatic confusion a monkey’s birthday.
For Belloc this territory was beyond compare, even locally. In Sussex, The Resistant County he writes: “The lines of West Sussex are long lines, like those of waves following on a wind. The lines of East Sussex are sharp, pyramidal, isolated, pointed… The men of West Sussex will tell you, when they choose to be articulate, (and they can be articulate when they choose) that their landscape is the most subtle in the world; but the landscape of East Sussex is quite clearly apparent and needs no mental digging to understand it… It is striking. West Sussex is not striking. It is revealing.”
An elegant report, but quite wrong, I think. The eastern part is enigmatic. Kipling’s “secret Weald”. The western ground is open and inviting to the eye – long, leggy expanses of photogenic downland with chalk-teeth smiles.
Two Sussex men disagreeing. How very unusual. ‘We Wunt Be Druv’ goes our motto, a polished relic from the drovers. If we had an emblem it would be an immovable pig with mischievous eyes and a mouthful of bluebells. Belloc adored this theme: ‘The County of Sussex has this peculiarity among all the Counties of England: That it is more resistant than any… It has always had this quality. It was a separate kingdom much later than any other county… [To this day] one may talk a little fantastically but without too much exaggeration of “the Kingdom of Sussex”. Sussex The Resistant County
I wonder whom he imagined as King? Later, he states: “Sussex has been equally stubborn and tenacious in its resistance to any other change, even those of our own time.”
I’m tempted to follow this line, but rural conservatism is a dead-end lane. The past might be pleasurable to visit but you can’t expect people to live there. Besides, old Sussex was never an Eden. Its beauty was formed by the seasonal pilgrimages of swineherds, who drove their pigs into the wild woods to munch acorns. By their settling in farmsteads, creating small, irregular fields to match tough, irregular land. By the huge growth in iron foundries making cannon, which farmed the oak for fire and funded glorious houses. By each new prosperous generation preserving these qualities. Yes, Sussex should be protected. From unthinking rurburbanisation. From ubiquity. From Leylandii culture. But Sussex needs new life as well as continuity. An appreciation of what is and what could be as great as what was.
Unfortunately, Belloc’s flames burn low when he considers the future. He projects his own maudlin – Magdalene – pessimism onto the land, rather than celebrates its potential. Death and dread stalk his feelings. Here he is in the preface to The Four Men:
‘… on this account does a man come to love with all his heart , that part of earth which nourished his boyhood. For it does not change, or if it changes, it changes very little, and finds in it the character of enduring things. In this love he remains content, until, perhaps, some sort of warning reaches him, that even his own County is approaching its doom.’
‘Doom’. Very Catholic. The personal as universal. But enough of all this, we have a public burning to attend.
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.
I meet Mark and Alfie by the War Memorial, as arranged. “Good Lord, what are you doing here?” asks Mark, now with jazz-grunge experimentalists Horny Devil. Alfie has been helping one of the Societies; he can’t reveal which. I mention Belloc and Sussex and the Rose and Crown affair. “What on earth are you on about?” asks Mark. Alfie smiles in my direction, and winks.
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 Druvery 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.