Earlier this year a local man called Paul Wheeler was knocked down and killed by a car as he wheeled his bike across a busy road. The death sent shockwaves around the town, as Wheeler was the 'archbishop' of the Commercial Square Bonfire Society, but to relative newcomers like me, it was just another name I'd never heard of.
I realised that whilst I lived in Lewes, I was not a Lewesian.
The centre of Lewes was packed during Paul Wheeler's funeral and although I felt conscious of being an outsider, I was glad to live in a town where individuals still mattered. The fact that Lewes could come to a standstill (with huge traffic delays) because people wanted to celebrate the life of a friend, reminded me why I moved to Lewes in the first place.
Recently, the magazine Viva Lewes published an extract from a tribute to Paul Wheeler that was written by a local artist called Peter Messer. I found it extremely moving. Messer's prose could, at times, have been written by Orwell or Betjeman and although you may find it nostalgic and sentimental, it encapsulates the spirit of Lewes: a town which still has a mind of its own and, in Sussex dialect, won't be druv by politicians or big business.
Here is an extract from Peter Messer's tribute:
We were neighbours for over ten years, good friends for many more and for seven years we shared an allotment (plot of land, for non-British readers) in Paddock Road. On the Sunday morning I'd heard he died, I was planning to meet him. The ritual never varied much; five minutes after the Archers' theme tune died away, Paul would turn up and we'd spend a quarter of an hour discussing the week's events in Ambridge. There'd be a bit of work, a bit of a chat, a bit more work, a rant, some weeding, some harvesting for Sunday dinner then a full five minutes' gloating self-satisfaction at what we'd achieved before adjourning to the Gardener's Arms.
Paul was a romantic and an escapist but a practical one. Instead of just dreaming about the atmospheres, artifacts and customs of the past, he recreated them as much as possible in his everyday life. He found much of contemporary life tawdry and alienating and he railed at its emptiness, yearning for something simpler, more essentially human, where comradeship and community meant more than social position and personal gain.
A life that revolved around good beer and food, and good friends and neighbours suited him down to the ground. Anyone lucky enough to have spent a Boxing Night with Paul and Dawn will have gained a brief insight into the things they felt to be important. No electric lights, just an intimate glow from a couple of oil lamps glinting from below his beloved old enamel signs, hung with plain holly and ivy from the allotment. Endless talk and laughter, drink and good homemade food over a background of hit songs from the forties.
If there is such a thing as heaven...I imagine Paul's as a kind of idealised cross between Lewes and Brighton in the 1930s, full of steam engines and coal smoke, advertisements for Kolynos Toothpaste, Robin Starch and Keatings Flea Powder. A heaven of thriving hot-metal printworks, manufacturers, bakers, brewers and other industries called Royal-this and Empire-that, with pie and mash shops, the Brighton Belle and Max Miller at the Hippodrome for One Night Only.
Bank Holiday cycle tripes out to rural pubs and tea-rooms, behind which stand the Downs, covered with Southdown sheep and seagulls forever following the plough. Steam-driven fairground gallopers, Harvest Homes and the singing of old songs. The pubs all full of dark wood and engraved mirrors, billycock hats, pipe smoke and pianos.
And if you heard laughter coming from inside, you'd certainly know the one Wheeler was in! Paul was an English Man with all that entails, but essentially he was a Sussex Boy. You can be a hundred years old in Sussex and still be a boy.