I had a free day yesterday so went to Lewes. It was the third time I’d visited so technically I should know the place pretty well, but the first time was with family, and the second time was to see the famous bonfires, in both cases I’d not stayed more than a few hours. I thought this would be a good opportunity to really spend lots of time there to see anything I’d missed earlier, but really there wasn’t much. Loitered for ages in one of the second-hand bookshops, leafed through lots of old books and didn’t buy anything.

Went past the hotel where Thomas Paine ‘expounded his revolutionary politics’.

paine_plaque

It’s always odd to see these rural strongholds of historic radicalism in the present day. Much in the same way western tourists go to ex-soviet countries and gawp at all the monuments, I find it fascinating when the remnants of social movements are written into the landscape of an area.

The Westgate Chapel on the high street is part of that free-thinking/nonconformist christian tradition which at its inception represented a significant rupture with the official structures of the christian church. I don’t know much about the theology but I know enough to recognise that it was an alternative belief system with an emancipatory political dimension. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that one of the philosophers whose thought was so influenced by (and influential to) the French and American revolutions, lived literally next door to the Westgate Chapel. Looking at the town today, its local administration is dominated by the Green Party, they allowed the critical mass to park our bikes in the council parking lot when we went to see the bonfires. It’s easy to see that Lewes is part of that localised flourishing of the Greens in line with what happened in Brighton before this year’s elections, but it can also be read as an expression of deeply-rooted historical tendencies.

On the other hand, the enthusiasm I feel for Thomas Paine and the American revolution is completely at odds with current American society. Take the religious aspect, in Southampton where my brother is studying, there’s a monument to where the Mayflower set off for America’s colonies. Among the Mayflower’s passengers were a group of pilgrims escaping state persecution, their beliefs can again be characterised as reformist, anti-authoritarian, and generally progressive. The Mayflower’s journey is an important part of the American national myth, yet modern christians in America lack those progressive qualities for which their (white, European) ancestors had to flee Britain in the first place. How did that shift happen?

Here’s a picture of me wobbling on a ledge near the river:

lewes_river_ouse

Going to listen to some Dick Gaughan now; dance in the oldest boots I own, to the rhythm of Tom Paine’s bones…