My East Borneo Diary – Pagan ritual in a seaside town


Friday: Directly outside my apartment in Eastbourne is a pebble beach. Behind it, the English Channel, then France. This morning, a bulldozer dug a giant pit in the beach 100 yards from my kitchen. After lunch, a dozen men and women arrived in trucks, with equipment and a goodly number of pallets. For the remains of the day, they piled the pallets neatly, 12 feet high. Finally, they built a trellis on the top, with the letters EBS spelled out in wood, ranch-style. A tent and brazier were driven in for the overnight security team.

Saturday: Crowd control barriers arrived. On an adjacent section of the beach, men began laying out large objects in the sand, wrapped in brown paper, in two main rows and another at right angles to them. A food court materialised, bungalow-sized boxes on wheels drawn onto the pavement by large trucks, selling junk food.

A human-sized effigy with a baseball-sized head was mounted atop the pallets, on a chair. A head-and-shoulders drawing of a man in a tall hat was woven onto a large easel with slow-delay explosive cable, to stand 10 feet tall.

By the time it was dark, a hefty throng of people had appeared. Folks stood six deep outside my apartment block and the length of the Grand Parade (my street).

My brother, who came in for the show, bought me a Star Wars light sabre that flashes red, green and blue, the colours of the flag of Azerbaijan. We walked the length of the Parade, from which traffic had been banned. Thousands of people and children were in attendance. The anticipation was fierce.

We heard the drums in the distance at about nine o’clock. They marked the start of a torchlight parade. In groups, several hundred pirates and sailors and ghosties and ghoulies in full uniform made their way to my building, to a samba beat. They queued to throw their blazing torches onto the pallets: a bonfire, the B in Eastbourne Bonfire Society. The heat, once the thing got going, was so intense, you could feel it keenly 200 yards away.

Finally, everyone gathered outside my apartment. The rows of wrapped objects on the adjacent beach and the outline of the guy in the tall hat were the firework display, which four men then started. I’m a huge fireworks man; this was the best display I’ve ever seen from close up. It had rhythm; timing and the humour it makes possible; deafening noise (six hours until my right ear worked right); and overwhelming visual effects. Bravo.

A huge round of applause and the crowd broke up. Then the criminality set in. In the hotel on my left, a young couple were, erm, enjoying themselves and forgot to pull the curtains. As the food court was closing up, two opportunistic chancers stole a huge bag of soft drinks from under the eye of the owner. When we went to survey the remains of the bonfire, a fantastically drunk reveller blocked our path, assailing us with Christmas carols.

Sunday: Men with bulldozers filled in the pit with wet sand. Other men removed all the trash that had been strewn all over town. The barriers and everything else were taken away.

The EBS is a charitable enterprise, one of a number of bonfire societies in East Sussex and further afield. Weekly, from September to November, they mount one of these bashes in towns all over the area. Bonfire types come from everywhere to boost other towns’ festivals. It’s all in memory of Guido Fawkes, who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

Monday: As I write, everything outside is exactly as it always is. Not a living soul in sight, the length of the Parade.

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