Lewes Dances For Tom Paine

It is so easy to scoff.

It is “nice” living in a nice middle class town with nice middle class people. Scoff as much as you like but my town, Lewes in South-Eastern England does have a lot going for it. Well nice is nice whether you like it or not.

Yesterday was one of those days when the place shows just what it is made of – where else would they close the High Street for an anarchic dance celebration of a grand old revolutionary that this country sentenced to death in his absence as a traitor.

We like radicals in Lewes – especially Thomas Paine, an Englishman who lived for a time here in the town, in this very High Street in fact, before going off to be an inspiration in both the American and French Revolutions. He said that he was a citizen of the World but the England of his day saw him as a traitor.

Yesterday the people of Lewes took to the streets to celebrate his life and the 200th anniversary of his death.

He wrote The Rights of Man and has become one of the immortals in that great battle for liberty and freedom which is still waiting for one day, let’s hope, its final victory.

Most of the time we know, of course, that the World is full of inequality, unfairness and prejudice and that it will, most likely, stay like that. Just sometimes though, on a sunny July day in a picturesque English market town, you come across the unexpected. Ordinary citizens of the World taking to the streets and calling out for something better.


It is just a town full of idealistic liberals and old die-hard hippies – or so they say – it is all very well for them to organize a piece of artsy, Utopianist street theatre and to think that they are changing the world.

What’s wrong with liberal and hippies I say if they can come together for what was really a piece of good old anarchist protest parceled up and presented as family entertainment.

The music pounded from a public address system which would have brought complaints from any other respectable community and people actually danced for a dead man’s vision of society. Well, wow, I thought, especially when the town echoed to strains of We Shall Overcome and ordinary, average, everyday, call them what you will, citizens raised just a thought, a hope, that we could actually all make this a better world – just like the man said.

The Shoe Nail Dance, the dance that was being re-enacted was based on the story that after Tom Paine’s trial in London, a cobbler made shoes with nails in the soles bearing the initials TP so that the well-heeled aristocracy could stamp on Paine’s name and on his ideas. Two hundred years later, it was time to dance to a different tune.


It could have been such a naff experience, this street theatre dance from the heart of England but somehow, it just came together with a smile on its face and some real feeling in its heart.

I was proud that I am not just a citizen of the world but a citizen of Lewes too. So scoff if you will but I am with the dancers.

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