Last week I was invited to take part in the Torchlight Procession, part of the official ceremonies which kick off Hogmanay here in Edinburgh. The event is open to the public too, but it was the first time I’ve joined in.
I think ‘joining in’ is the key phrase here. Not something which comes too easily to me these days, despite being a highly sociable person by nature. It makes me also think about related concepts such as ‘fitting in’ and ‘belonging’ – all things which provide us with some sort of connection with our kin.
This strikes a chord with me just now as I’m currently been reading Brene Brown’s book, the Gifts of Imperfection. This devotes a chapter to the business of ‘fitting in’ and ‘belonging.’ (By a strange coincidence later that night, in the confines of the pleasingly unreconstructed folk boozer the Royal Oak, fellow torchblogger Mike Sowden revealed that he’s been reading the very same book.)
Brene argues that too many of us focus on ‘fitting in’ when we should fix on the idea of ‘belonging.’ Instead of trying to people-please and mould ourselves into some image we think is more acceptable to others, we should focus on those relationships which matter more, those with a genuine connection which engender a sense of belonging and which are ultimately more fulfilling.
So why do these type of events resonate with us? Maybe it’s about that sense of communality, shared experience. I’ve experienced this in my life predominantly through three things:
1. Football matches
It might surprise some of you that I used to be utterly obsessed with football. For most of my childhood, I had a virtually encyclopaedic knowledge of British clubs, grounds and players and went to almost every Charlton home game. When I hit 14 or 15 I lost all interest, almost overnight, becoming far more preoccupied with music and girls. (This greatly perplexed my dad who has never quite forgiven me.) I’ve never rekindled my interest for the sport, but the one thing I sometimes miss about going to matches is that communal spirit.
Later in life I replaced this same feeling with that found at gigs and – to a lesser extent – clubbing. Again, I may seem an unlikely clubber these days, but for a couple of years in my early twenties it was a huge part of my social life. For my money, no one captures the heady buzz of clublife better than Mike Skinner, with the Streets’ song Weak Become Heroes, so I will spare your tired eyes and direct you to that instead.
As for gigs, My Morning Jacket’s beautilful song Golden captures the anticipation of a gig perfectly for me, albeit from their own perspective on the other side of the stage:
‘Watching the crowd roll in, out go the lights, it begins. Feeling in my bones, I’ve never felt before…’
Communal events like the Torchlight Procession give us that feeling of joining in and possibly even belonging- and however fleeting it may be, it’s still a connection of sorts.
So anyway, back to the procession itself. It begins with that palpable air of excitement, apprehension, not knowing quite what to expect. It might sound quite pedestrian on paper – some 40,000 people walk half a mile carrying some lit torches for no particular purpose beyond symbolism, ceremony and street theatre – but it’s the communality which makes it far greater than the sum of its parts.
As we crowd around and shuffle into place around Chambers Street for the speeches, the Vikings’ issue their battle cries, giant inflatable fish hover over our heads and the facade of the Royal Museum is illuminated in a mini Northern Lights-like display of pretty pyrotechnics. We’re told not to light our own torches, that the street team will do this for us. This adds to the drama somehow.
Torches lit, there’s quite a bottle neck as we shamble slowly down South Bridge. Runaway Jane is holding hers gingerly at arms length, like it’s a stick of dynamite. Most of the other girls are worried about their hair catching alight (but flame hair is big this year in Scotland no? Haven’t they seen Brave?) and even the guys are cracking nervous jokes about the number of potential ‘burns night’ victims. I certainly came home with my new black Boxfresh jacket absolutely caked and pockmarked with a hundred wax drips. (It may be in that country poacher style, but it wasn’t really a wax jacket when I bought it.)
The smell hits me first, then the heat from all these torches and bodies in such close proximity on a chilly winter night in the Old Town. The burlap canes are coated about four fifths of the way down with beeswax. There’s something charmingly medieval about this, primal almost. For some reason the smell calls to mind barbeques. I admit it’s making me hungry – a Homer Simpson-esque response maybe, but there you go…
Eventually we turn into Calton Hill itself, the sea of massed bodies ebbing and flowing now, propelled onwards by the surprisingly appropriate soundtrack of the Proclaimers (admit it, 500 Miles is enough to rouse a flutter of Celtic pride in the chest of the most doggedly un-Scottish soul. Even myself, who refused to wear a kilt on grounds of national inauthenticity. Sorry but an Englishman in a kilt is like an American in a sombrero – borderline offensive!).
This is followed by other Celtic stormers, such as Aztec Camera’s Walk Out to Winter and yes, you guessed it – Big Country’s Fields of Fire! Replete with those much-maligned bagpipe gee-tahs and marching band drums – well, would be rude not to surely?!
As we near our terminus, the circular car park where the road of Calton Hill is replaced by the steep, narrow track winding up to the National Monument, we notice that most people’s torches have burnt out already. Mine is also burning dangerously to the hilt, so I toss it into a flaming iron bin.
Next to this is a larger grey plastic skip, brimming with water, except it’s toppling over and seems to be ravaged by a huge, gaping hole in its side, like it’s been blasted by a shotgun. Someone puts it out of its misery, toppling it over on to the kerb as several gallons of murky, waxy water spill into the gutter.
A good crowd is assembled here, while some stream back in the direction we came. Tannoy announcements (one every twenty seconds or so, it seems) inform us that the fireworks finale is soon to start, that the hill is now closed and that all can be viewed on the giant TV screen. It’s a fine enough display I suppose but inevitably feels like something of an anticlimax, don’t they always? That’s it. Show’s over. At least for another year.
By this time Jane has fled (not in terror at the flames I should add, but in a desperation for the loo!) and replacing her in perhaps the world’s slowest and smokiest ever relay, I find Mike, and visiting American Blogmaniacs, Dan and Audrey, having lost the rest of our 20 strong group of Blogmanay bretheren earlier on.
Our torches may have finally gone out tonight but I have made some new friends, in true Auld Lang Syne spirit.
I don’t generally go a bundle for postive sentiment in songs, but I’ll leave you with these words from the Hold Steady’s ‘yes we can’ anthem Constructive Summer, which seems to sum up the experience nicely enough –
‘Let this be my annual reminder, that we can all be something bigger.’
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