Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Keith Austin - Lewes' Mr Bonfire - RIP


A Lewes legend, Keith Austin, has died aged almost 75, and last Friday (20 September) his funeral took place in the town he loved. 

A big man with a big heart, he put Lewes first, whether in his work for Lewes Bonfire Council, Southover Bonfire Society, Lewes Operatic Society or in his service as an independent town councillor among his many other public-spirited activities.

For half a century Keith propped up the bar at the King's Head in Southover, displaying loyalty to his local through good times and bad. 

He loved the pub life and made that public house his second home.

Keith would regale other customers with stories of the Lewes of yesteryear in its cattle market and horseracing glory days, amid other tales such as the occasion when, as a young man, he was entertained by Noel Coward on his yacht in the South of France.

Keith was also independent minded, displaying the “We Wunt Be Druv” Sussex spirit in his ways. 

 Nonetheless, he was also self-deprecating and played down his contribution to the town, although he would have every claim to the title of “Mr Bonfire".
I first got to know Keith when I moved to Lewes in 2002. 

I spent quite a lot of time hanging out with him and the other regulars at the King's Head including Chris Harris and Matt Street.

Keith was an extraordinary drinker. He could easily put away a gallon of lager or cider in an evening - more if he made an early start.

He was always there, sitting on his bar stool, ready and eager to chat about anything.

Gradually, I came to learn about him and his life.

He had come to Lewes in the early 1960s and ran a coffee shop on Cliffe High Street called The Den.

Keith had met a man called John Burford who had been the love of his life.


Sadly, John had died young - I am not sure when but possibly the late 1970s or early 1980s - breaking Keith's heart. 

When you attend a funeral, you realise that what you know of a person is purely a handful of snapshots of their life.

At the funeral and wake, you become aware of many other handfuls of snapshots and a fuller picture of the deceased starts to build up in your mind. 

At Keith's bash, there were a lot of stories about his exploits over the years. People spoke of his kindness and how incredibly active he was in the community.

The proceedings - meticulously organised by Southover Bonfire Society with help from her six sister societies - started outside the undertaker's, Cooper & Son, atop School Hill.

I was there from around 12.30pm, with my Cluniac monk's habit in a plastic bag. I had a chat with my friend Ruth, Mayor of Lewes, also Stormin' Norman Baker, the town's MP and also Transport Minister in the Coalition Government. It was good to see them both there.  

Respect is so important.

Keith departed, in a classic Rolls Royce hearse, for a quick tour of the town, accompanied by an escort of his former colleagues at GM Taxis. 

After retiring from the bathroom trade, Keith took a job as the controller in the taxi firm's office just outside the station.

Many a time I would chat to him about the challenges of getting the taxis to pick up their passengers while I did my photocopying at his machine.

It was good to see the whole fleet driving one in the procession.

The Bonfire Boys and Belles walked down the hill to The Dorset - currently home of Cliffe Bonfire Society of which Keith was Secretary for many year.

Even at 1pm there was a fantastic turn-out of people in the garden. I was intrigued to see the Southover Bell Cart there, awaiting Keith's coffin.

It has been decked out with flowers and placed under a marquee in case of rain. No fear of that. Afters days of wretched weather, the heavens were smiling.

A perfectly blue sky above.

The sun smiling on Keith.

It was a moving moment when Keith's casket arrived and was borne onto the cart. As he lay in state the crowd got bigger, more pints of Harvey's Best were drunk and the photograph album on the table was perused.

I was struck by how handsome Keith had been in his youth.

I had only known him in his larger days.

At different periods of his younger life he has resembled Pinky from Brighton Rock, Clive Anderson and Ken Barlow from Coronation Street.

Sadly, there were no family members at his funeral. There had been a family rift over his sexuality. 

He had been told he was not welcome at his sister’s funeral and none of his surviving relatives were present at his. 

It is so very sad when people who loved each other no longer will see each other.

Forming up for the procession took a few minutes to happen and then we were off, Keith on the Bell Cart at the beginning, followed by seven friends, one from each of the bonfire societies, a jazz band and the Cluniac Monks of Southover, myself included. 

After us, were the ranks of the other bonfire societies and others such as members of the operatic society and the Lewes Lions.

The drinkers came out of the Gardeners Arms, a pub where Keith often drank which, to pay their last respects.


As Keith had lain in his box outside The Dorset, where he had enjoyed a jar or two on many a occasion, the sun beamed down on him and one of his old friends gently placed a pint of lager on his coffin.

People queued up to read the memorial photograph album which was very interesting. It started with black and white images of Keith in his youth. 

There were also pictures of a young Keith with his family. A very happy bunch they looked in those days. 


Some of the places in his life were also pictured. 

He had grown up around Crystal Palace, in South London, and, it seems, had loved the railways.
Later on, you saw pictures of Keith serving behind the bar in a pub in Lewes, playing a dame in, 
I assume, the Lewes Arms Pantomime and in a variety of different Bonfire costumes, including as the Archbishop who preaches to the people while being bombarded by fireworks on the Fifth.

 I said to Keith once that he must have been mad to stand on a platform while fire crackers were thrown at him. 

He said it was part and parcel of Bonfire and he did not care about his own personal safety.

 At 2.20pm, the crowd at the back of The Dorset had been large. 

It was interesting to see the different colours of the seven Lewes bonfire societies commingling. 

It was very sad processing through the streets of Lewes. I felt morose as I marched in my monk’s outfit past my church, St Thomas a Becket on Cliffe High Street, past where his coffee shop The Den had been, and along the street to Cliffe Bridge. 

We processed over the Bridge, from which Keith would have watched the burning of tar barrels on many a Bonfire Night with the Cliffe Bonfire Society, and then through the Precinct, across which the old Uckfield railway line had once passed. 

Then, Friars Walk, past the Chinese takeover which for years sustained Keith, supplying the food to the King’s Head at around closing time; and Station Approach, where he had worked in the taxi office, and right into Priory Street, his stomping ground, past his little house and the King’s Head public house, his home from home. 
Finally, we reached St John’s, Southover, an ancient place of worship renamed Southover Church by the evangelical wing of the Church of England which now runs it very successfully. 

As my mate Chris Harris had predicted, the church’s lavatory was in great demand before the service. The church was full before the rector Steve Daughtery led in the funereal procession.

It was a moving service. 

Four friends reflected on Keith’s life. I was interested in his work as a Lewes Lion, although I am not entirely sure what a Lion does. 

 A friend who had stood an independent town councillor with Keith (they were both elected) said that Keith was overjoyed at his success.  

“This is the happiest day of my life,” said the great man, “if only the pubs were open!”


The story of his days in the 1970s whizzing around Lewes in an MG sports car, going from social club to pub to pub to pub showed another side of the man. I imagine he cut a different figure in those days, a bouvardier full of energy, fun and action.

 The most moving tribute came from Southover’s Commander-in-Chief Matt Street, who I believe had enlisted Ketih to help in the resurrection of the dormant Society in the early 2000s. 

I was also a (re)founding member, although I honestly cannot remember if it was Matt or Keith or both who got me on board.

Matt spoke beautifully from the heart about his old friend, concluding that he would “miss the old bugger”.

The homily was preached by Steve Daughtery who I always think of as a kind of Christian goal hanger, ever eager to bang one into the back of the net for Jesus.

 I am not sure I really understood his sermon, peppered as it was with popular psychology, and it was disappointing that he interjected a reprise of his message betwixt a recording that Keith had made introducing his favourite hymn and the singing of that hymn.

It would have been so much better if the hymn had been allowed immediately to follow the deceased's moving words.

All the same, Steve is a good man; his heart is in the right place.

The great thing about the service was that Keith had organised it.

For hymns he had plumped for Fight the Good Fight with All Thy Might by John Monsell, I Vow To You My Saviour by Richard Bewes, and You’ll Never Walk Alone by Rogers and Hammerstein. 



The readings were from Matthew Chapter Five, Verses 1 to 12, and from Psalm 25. And we were treated to the good old version of the Lord’s Prayer which I have never heard said in Southover Church before. All good!

In a sense, it had been Keith Week. 

We had gathered in the King’s Head to celebrate his 75th birthday and unveil a brass plaque at his place at the bar. 

Very appropriate, I felt. 

There were many times when Keith would be the only customers in. 

During rocky periods, his custom kept that pub open. 

No one could fault his dedication.

It was very strange hearing his recorded voice again over the PA system of the church, his long “s” lisp and the emotion he put into words like “emotional”. 

He spoke about how important it is to overcome personally tough times and to have a positive outlook. Absolutely right! 




However, it is fair to say that Keith struggled to do this as much as any of us. 

He had his happy days and his sad days.

The singing of You’re Never Walk Alone was led by the Lewes Operatic Society, for which Keith was Secretary, and very magnificent it was too. Later, they did a repeat performance in the pub.

Keith’s coffin was carried out of the Church and the “Bonfire Prayers” recited as he was placed back into the hearse. 

It slowly set off down Southover High Street – Keith’s final departure from Lewes, the town he made his home and his life's work.
  
Most of us retired to the King’s Head for a few pints of Harveys’ Best in the setting sun. 

It was really good to meet folk from other bonfire societies. 


I had never dared to talk to them before. 

The Commander-in-Chief of Borough Bonfire Society had also been Keith’s landlady. 

She said she had installed a washing machine for Keith but he had never used it, preferring to wash his clothes by hand. 

Inevitably, the evening wore on. 

Harris returned, having traded his funereal attire for a hoody. He told a very funny story. After a good evening at the King Head’s, Keith was well known for collapsing during the short walk from the pub to his front door. Other regulars would quite often help him home, a bodybuilding experience if ever there was one.

On one occasion, Harris and his friend Ginny were returning from the pub and found Keith drunkenly sprawled across his threshold. 

They were attempting to get him to his feet when a policeman arrived and asked what was going on. 

“It’s our mate,” said Chris, “we’re trying to get him to bed”. The copper called for assistance, three police cars arrived with sirens blaring and soon, to a still-conscious Keith’s delight, six strapping policemen were putting him to bed. 

In the pub the next day, according to Harris, Keith was far from contrite, saying: “It’s what I pay my taxes for!”

In among the outrageous yarns about Keith, there were so many tributes in spoken and written words. Stephen English, Chairman of Southover Bonfire Society, spoke about how Keith could close an issue down at meetings purely through his silence; Duncan Roy, “Archbishop” of Southover, said that Keith told him that when he played the same role for Cliffe Bonfire Society in the 1960s, the predominantly male crowd would chant at him: “Give us the pill! GIVE US THE PILL!”
Norman Baker MP talked of Keith’s “straight-talking, determination and integrity”. 

Martin Crees, a former denizen of Keith’s coffee shop The Den, in Cliffe High Street, wrote in the Southover Bonfire Society Programme: “The Den was us. . . we had Parkas or Leathers and were Mods or Rockers, and yattered about makes of scooter or  bike, trying to flirt with the girls with our jukebox picks, nudge the pinball machine and hope Keith had not seen it. 

"Keith ruled us with firm kindness, when not making expressive noises at the Expresso coffee machine. 

"I don’t know that he ever said he was homosexual – what a brutal word it now seems – but somehow we sensed he was, and that softened that phobia. 

"In all those years to 1970 there never was a fight between the Mods and Rockers [in The Den], because we liked and thanked Keith for this haven where we could begin to grow up. His disapproval would have been like exile.” 

Over the past few years, Keith's health had become worse and his mobility poor. 

At times he seemed in his cups, very depressed.

But, there was still life in the old dog. On various occasions he was also on cracking form. 

Who can forget when he discharged himself from hospital in Eastbourne after, I am told, almost dying, and caught a cab straight back to the King's Head for a pint of cooking lager.

That's laughing in the face of adversity!
And Keith had a whale of a time at the Mumford Weekend which raised a lot of money for Bonfire. 

Sadly, I had to work up in Warwickshire that weekend, but you can see from the picture (apologies for the quality of it) that he was really enjoying himself, even if he did later complain that he should have been allowed to work behind the bar at the gig!

His send-off was a fitting one. The sun shone, much imbibing took place, the jazz band played and good food was consumed. 

The big man was the centre of attention, never far from our thoughts.

Keith would have loved every last second of it!

On the Fifth this year, we of the Southover Bonfire Society will firing some of Keith's ashes up to the skies in a rocket. I am sure the other Lewes bonfire societies, who have all been offered Keith ashes will follow suit.

It will be a fitting end for the one and only Mr Bonfire!

Keith Austin, 1938 - 2013, RIP

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