Independence Day with Tom Paine in Lewes, a Small English Town

I went on one of those “mad dogs and Englishmen” walks around town yesterday when the temperature was soaring and the humidity made it seem even hotter than the 30s/90s that the thermometer had reached here in Lewes in South East England.

For us wimpy Brits, that is hot and I was loving it.

You can see that we have been having a heatwave because the atmospheric old Bowling Green has turned into a Bowling Yellow. This walled space by our 11th. Century castle has been used for the non-sport of bowling for nearly 400 years. One enthusiast for the pastime of rolling balls was that great revolutionary figure Thomas Paine who lived in Lewes between 1768 and 1774 before setting off to America to become one of the fathers of the American Revolution.

Not being a player of bowls, I do not know for sure, but I suspect it is the perfect activity when you want to mix fresh air with some tricky intellectual theories so I like to think that at least a little bit of today Independence Day celebrations should be focused on this sun-parched bowling green on our side of the Atlantic.

Tomorrow sees the beginning of our town’s Tom Paine Festival, a series of events commemorating the bicentenary of Paine’s death which, in admirable Lewes style, is mostly lectures, exhibitions, debates and dramas related to the great man and his ideas.

For some time his portrait has adorned the thoroughfare under of our 18th. Century Market Tower which was looking particularly moody with the mid-afternoon sun. I was one of the few people who was venturing out in the heat so I could linger and celebrate in my own internalised festival, the author of The Rights Of Man and who wrote: “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”

He lived above a tobacconist shop in Lewes High Street and, eventually married and then divorced the tobacconist’s daughter. He earned his living as an Excise Man but occupied his mind with radical politics and campaigned for better wages for his fellow workers.

Standing across the road from his house, it is possible to imagine him in one of those upstairs rooms scribbling pamphlets and thinking the unthinkable: equality for all men, the establishment of a republic with an end to the aristocracy and the superstition of religion.

He joined a debating society of Lewes radicals who met in the room behind the balcony of out local hotel The White Hart and so we are entitled to think of Lewes as, at least one of the birthplaces of American Independence which not only the USA has reason to celebrate tomorrow, the 4th July.

With Tom Paine, amongst others, the bolshie, bloody-minded spirit of English independence crossed the Atlantic and set some seeds which still unite our two countries.

I wondered what people were thinking, the few that were out and about, perhaps they too meditating on Paine’s dictum: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” Philosophy was in the air – or so I thought.

Some of that independent-mindedness is still at large in Lewes today with its record for public debate, protest and individuality. Reason enough I think for us to celebrate Tom Paine with a glass of our local brewery’s Tom Paine Ale

Or maybe just to sport a Tom Paine T-shirt, shopping basket or apron – all of course in pure organic cotton….so very Lewes.

Yesterday, maybe, it was just too hot for simmering political debate. Baking in the English sunshine, strenuous activity was reduced to a languid stroll or, even better, a cup of tea under the awnings of an open air cafe. Now tea…come to think of it, that was significant too. The Boston Teaparty – that was a great deal more energetic than I was, sitting there with a cup of Darjeeling whilst quietly toasting the birth of a nation or at least wishing all those celebrating Americans a good time.

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