Brought up a Catholic – now very much lapsed – I can remember as a lad being very shocked when I learnt that every year the good people of Lewes in Sussex burn an effigy of the pope. “Surely,” I thought with self-righteous smugness, “they will burn in Hell, their bowels consumed in the Lake of Fire, as lesser demons prod their tortured souls with spears and prongs and tridents. And shit like that.”
Had I known then that one day I would be warming my hands from the blaze given off as the habit of a crucified Jesus took hold atop the huge pyre we had made, I might have been less quick to rush to judgment… If they were getting that for immolating the pope, what the hell would the big man be handing down to us for drinking mugs of gluhwein as we torched his only beloved son?
I hadn’t set out to take part in a Satan-infused re-enactment of The Wicker Man. It just kind of happened that way, God – honest, guv. I mean, Lord.
It was all going to be a harmless weekend in the country staying with my good pals, Miles and Luca. They have a pile in north Somerset, between Bath and Brizzle. A beautiful part of the world, all green fields, thatched cottages and traditional pubs with skittles halls and Butcombe beers. It’s a glorious strip of the best that England has to offer, a quilt of lanes and villages bound by the Mendip Hills to the south and Blagdon Lake (Miles, ad nauseam: “It’s the largest man-made lake in England, you know”) to the north.
Not quite a stately home, it’s pretty damn imposing nonetheless; an enormous lawn and drive to the front, a specially commissioned sign saying ‘Privates’ – signmakers’ error, if the neighbours ask – and the house itself, a magnificent stone-built 19th-century mansion. (Sunday nights, returning to my terraced house in Walthamstow after a weekend chez M&L, always fill me a Proustian sense of loss.)
And being down there for the weekend always feels like you have really got away from The Smoke. A two-and-a-half hour drive from Hammersmith, it’s sufficiently far afield that it is devoid of DFL-ers who rarely stray beyond Wiltshire, a la Madge and Guy (as was).
What this means is the local pub is still full of characters – Jeff the Fish, Tim the Taxi, you get the picture. A friendlier, more welcoming bunch you couldn’t hope to meet. But short of someone coming in with a dead badger in a sack and announcing “Im’s for the pot”, it doesn’t get much more Withnail.
"Burning the Pope? Surely they will burn in hell, their bowels consumed in the Lake of Fire, as lesser demons prod their tortured souls with spears and prongs and tridents. And shit like that."
(In an aside, Miles, who is Un Grand Fromage of Parlophone Records – organised a company day at his place recently. The highlight was that he persuaded Tinie Tempah and Kylie to come and perform for them in the local pub, which was sworn to secrecy to avoid paps. Kylie said it was the only time in her life she had performed on flock carpet. The story was picked up by the nationals and by TV. You might have thought this would be a big story for the local rag, the Chew Valley Gazette. But no. It merited two lines on p11, starting thus: “Apparently, Kylie Minogue played in a local pub recently…”. Video here for them as is interested. But I digress.)
Back to Bonfire Night. Miles had built a fire big enough to torture the most obdurate of Catholic martyrs in a modern-day ‘Turn or burn’ re-enactment. As the dusk fell, my daughter Evie, five, asked where was the guy?
Miles smiled smugly, announcing he had it covered. It seems the village has a charming festival that takes place on the August bank holiday – the Compton Martin scarecrow trail. It was opened this year by none other than Dr Phil Hammond – yes, he of TV fame. You may remember him from such educational films as Lead Paint: Delicious But Deadly, and Here Comes the Metric System! Oh no, sorry – that’s Troy McClure from The Simpsons. I mean, of course, Countdown and Trust Me, I’m A Doctor.
So, the deal is, everyone in the village makes a scarecrow and lines the Bath Road that runs through the village – yes, past the pond and Post Office – and a fine old time is had by all.
Not for nothing did Miles rise to the top of his industry – with a tremendous sense of forward-planning he bagged one of the ‘scarecrows’ to recycle as a guy for his Bonfire Night extravaganza.
He went down to the cellar and returned triumphantly with the said scarecrow-come-guy. His air of accomplishment was only momentarily dented when Evie said, “But Miles – isn’t that Jesus?”
Well, let’s examine the evidence. A man with a straggly beard, in a sackcloth habit, on a cross made of two poles. Hmm… Evie had a point, and it was hard to argue against.
Evidently, the scarecrow Miles had purloined had been one put together by the local church. And – I’m conjecturing here – they didn’t envisage him being burnt on a huge fire.
Still, Miles is a captain of industry who feels any kind of U-turn is a sign of weakness. “Never complain, never explain” could have been coined by him – had it not been coined by Benjamin Disraeli 150 years ago.
Ignoring entreaties from the weaker of will and purpose, he marched out with Jesus and placed him at the top of the mound of kindling and logs, before liberally dousing him with petrol – how the poor lad (Jesus, not Mile) must have been dreaming nostalgically of sponges soaked in vinegar proffered by Roman centurions. May God forgive us all…
And then it was time for the Devil to ride out. The kindling crackled, spluttered and took hold. The logs blazed into action. The flames fanned upwards to our sweet Lord, arms spread as though to say, “Forgive them Father – they know not what they do.”
The Norman church that stands a couple of hundred yards to the side of Miles’s ‘pad’ was infused with a gloriously decadent orange-red glow, the stained glass windows lit up as though a Black Mass was taking place within. It was like some sort of hilltop beacon warning villagers that the Angel of Death was abroad throughout the land; you could almost hear the beating of his wings.
Not that the stout yeomen of Zummerzet probably saw it saw it that way. Across the patchwork quilt that is the Chew Valley, locals were (probably) looking up to the hill, seeing the glory of the incandescent church and putting their arms around their families, saying, “Look, Ebeneezer and Seth, that thar is the glory of God.” Please don’t let them be reading this…
At that moment, we saw coming up the drive the lovely, wholesome family that lives next door. Charming people – and committed Christians. We had to send a small scouting party down the drive to head them off at the pass, and detain them long enough with inconsequential small talk to allow our Lord to shuffle off his mortal coil and ascend to take his rightful place at the right hand of his Father – a Father we hope follows the New Testament model of forgiveness and understanding rather than God Version 1.0 – you know, vengefulness, smiting, waxing wrathful and unleashing woe.
"In these days of agnostic, wishy-washy, Glastonbury Green Fields, 'I-don’t-know-what-I-believe-but-I-believe-in-some-kind-of-controlling-force-in-the-universe-thingummy', perhaps we could create something here."
As I stood there, thinking of the misery that would be unleashed on my daughter, and her daughter, and her daughter, ay, even unto the seventh generation etc, I was just thankful that these good people living next door had not had to endure this shocking sight, lest they feel compromised or somehow party to it.
That said, as I look back on it now I feel there may be hope for redemption yet. There is an urban myth relating to Christmas. That is, in Tokyo they love the high-campness of the occasion – fairy lights, jingle bells, Silent Night, yada yada yada. But they don’t quite understand the theological significance.
This led, according to the myth, to one Tokyo department store creating a wonderful, lavish Yuletide window display. It featured a beaming, rotund Santa – unfortunately for the corpulent, beneficent bringer of peace and goodwill, in this version he was firmly, uncompromisingly nailed to the cross.
(Judge for yourself whether it’s true at urban-myth busting site Snopes.com).
In these days of agnostic, wishy-washy, Glastonbury Green Fields, “I-don’t-what-I-believe-but-I-belive-in-some-kind-of-controlling-force-in-the-universe-thingummy”, perhaps we could create something here.
A kind of WD-40, 3-in-One, prizes-for-all festival. We nail Santa to the cross (Easter – tick). We burn him on a fire (anti-Popery Bonfire Night nonsense – tick). We hand out presents (Christmas – tick). And we all get really drunk (Bank Holidays en generale – tick).
So long as the Coalition Government doesn’t try to reduce our bank holidays as a result, or say we have to work until we’re 93, I’m up for it.
Just pray for my soul – OK?