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In Search of Hogmanay

David Hayes
28 December 2001

When tradition is commodified, it becomes heritage. What then happens to the people who ‘carried’ the tradition? Do they embrace the new, lament the old, or stay at home and watch television?

In Scotland, these questions are felt with particular sharpness in relation to the New Year festival (connoted by the famously obscure word ‘Hogmanay’) for which the country is renowned. The festival’s basic image is one of welcoming conviviality – the vision has some foundation in centuries of communal experience. But in an individualistic society seeking new forms of social bonding, what does or can ‘Hogmanay’ mean today?

An earlier Hogmanay was marked by a Scottish environment where puritan religious codes and social conventions reinforced one another. It was precisely the time of year when internalised routines and disciplines could be consciously transcended, in a pattern familiar throughout early modern Europe. Its ideal essence was the cultivation of a shared and perhaps melancholy inner space – with music, food, laughter and drink arriving at midnight, in a transition of banishment (of the old year) and welcome (to the new), marked by the ‘chancy ring/and narrowing comradeship of Auld Lang Syne’.

This was for a long time the ‘real’ Scottish festival – it is astonishing to recall today that until the late 1950s, 25 December was a normal working day in Scotland.

Like Christmas, the contemporary Hogmanay is an invented tradition drawing on elements of belief that social frontiers could momentarily be crossed in the spirit of egalitarian communality. Its composite elements – ritual gifts and food, fire, Saturnalia, purgation – are shared with many ‘rites of transition’ (in Mircea Eliade’s formulation) around the world.

The generous socialising of contemporary fable was, of course, only ever part of the story. In 1812 three young men were executed after using Hogmanay as a pretext to waylay and kill a clerk and a policeman. Eric Linklater describes Edinburgh’s Old Town in 1919 as ‘full of a roaring, drunken mob’ gripped by some ‘volcano of emotion’ and ‘united in a wild camaraderie of drink and excitement’. But nowadays, the older formal constraints in Scotland of austerity and social conservatism have vastly diminished. And when constraints are redundant, what possible meaning can ‘release’ have?

The Edinburgh solution

Edinburgh today provides one answer. The customary gathering at the High Street’s Tron kirk, for many years the sole public ritual, gave way nine years ago to a week-long festival of concerts, funfairs and torchlight processions. Its culmination was a huge street party, with fireworks from the Castle at midnight and live music around the spectacular Old and New Towns. The commercial purpose was not simply to benefit tourism in a quiet season, but more widely to make Edinburgh the favourite in a putative race to herald the millennium. Thus the ingenuous sales pitch: ‘the world’s new year party’.

In 1996-7 the hype hit the fan. A frightful crush near The Mound left dozens injured. Seventy people aged 15-24 arrived unconscious at hospital. A consultant forced to treat hundreds for the effects of inebriation called it ‘the worst night of my life’. Ninety tons of broken glass was recovered from the streets. The promotional hysteria that had brought 350,000 people (a fivefold increase in four years) proved nearly fatal. Edinburgh was a hairsbreadth from a disaster on the scale of Hillsborough.

The city of Jekyll and Hyde had incubated another monster. The way back to the human is long and painful.

A rebranded Scottishness

In the aftermath of 1997, it was time to retrench. The planning group – which included the tourist board, the district council, and the organisers, Unique Events – sought to finesse rather than abandon their earlier, bombastic claims of Auld Reekie as at the cutting edge of millennial partydom. Following a devastating safety report in June 1997, tight new controls were put in place. Access to the city centre was to be restricted to 180,000 ticket-holders, who on entering the inner zone were given Day-Glo wristband passes decorated with sponsors’ logos. Security guards patrolled the perimeter. Even the local Evening News, hitherto onside, editorialised on a ‘police state’ in the city.

But the innovations achieved their purpose with a relatively trouble-free 1997-8, and (with the installation in 1998-9 of impregnable steel gates at the entry points) formed the template of what was again presented as ‘the biggest and greatest new year celebration in the world’. A rebranded Scottishness – young, exuberant and party loving as well as kilt wearing – was the USP as much as the city’s incomparable charms.

Manic boosterism serviced the imaginary global competition with Sydney and New York for market and mind share. For the media, the formula was irresistible; indeed, the entwining of public relations and soft-focus journalism must be regarded as integral to the event. ‘We are the friendliest and most exciting nation and that’s why people are coming here’, says Pete Irvine of Unique Events, who had once spoken of his plan to ‘take possession of Hogmanay’. What, after all, is the point of having a soul if you can’t sell it?

From 1999, however, the seven-year itch started to corrode domestic harmony in ‘the home of Hogmanay’. A convulsive row over the distribution of street party tickets highlighted discrimination against local residents and in favour of visitors. In a further departure from inclusivity, the archly-named First Foot Club was set up to give priority and privilege to those willing to pay £15. The Evening News and its columnists were suitably incandescent, though an editorial revealingly conceded: ‘No-one would suggest that locals should have been given carte blanche to gather in the city centre’.

Organising spontaneity

The experience of Edinburgh describes the fate of calendar customs in a market society, the selling of different forms of national identity, and the corporatisation and management of public space. In short, it epitomises much of Britain’s last twenty years.

Edinburgh’s city centre over nine years has become the stage of a tightly packaged and mediatised global spectacle, whose live audience is designed to conform with the socially exclusive demographic desired by the sponsors: part of a wider tourist strategy to redefine the staid old city as (in the words of a 1998 report) ‘vibrant’ and ‘exciting’, a magnet for ‘trendy young visitors’. ‘Nearly 80% of revellers come from the upper social groupings’ claims one advertising survey.

It is not just that this is a marketing ‘opportunity’. As the new profession of leisure zone engineers throughout Britain have discovered, the social texture of the crowd is created by the marketing (though this is acknowledged only covertly).

The notion that different generations could mingle in shared remembrance and affection – perhaps the most compelling feature of the Hogmanay myth – appears today a pathetic anachronism. From the event’s inception, tickets have been available in pubs and nightclubs, not public libraries and swimming pools. Whatever potential for true communality exists finds it hard to survive the modern cult of segmentary advertising.

Sectoral targeting and cultural conformity require more and intense forms of regulation. In this light, a formally regimented Hogmanay makes sense (the crowd is attended by 700 police, 500 stewards plus hundreds of bouncers, first-aid units by the score, as well as the ubiquitous CCTV).

The city centre reverberates from late afternoon to pounding rock music from various sound stages, a highly effective form of social cleansing. Inside the permitted area, a cacophonous juggernaut of programming, desperate to fill every physical and psychological crevice, forms a relentless backdrop. When the sponsored fireworks explode, the ‘revellers’ (the incessant coinage of the publicists) joyfully transform an exclusionary celebration into a genuinely social moment. Briefly, the audience of a post-modern media carnival become again participants in an ancient rite of passage.

The iconography (the city’s televisual skyline), the demographic, the choreography of fireworks and pop stars, are all essential ingredients of a product that, it is claimed, benefits the city by £30m (a conjectural figure which has never been investigated). With good planning and luck, the medical and refuse staff will, as always, pick up the pieces: and the night again be drowned in hyperbole.

Winner drinks all

The real triumph belongs to one of the most powerful ideologies of modern Britain, alcohol-ism. (The Lonely Planet phrasebook for the UK lists 65 synonyms for ‘drunk’). Elspeth King, historian of the temperance movement, points out that ‘recognition of heavy drinking as a peculiarly Scottish problem is fully 150 years old’. But the recent glamourisation of a potentially crippling drug, targeted at an ever younger market (£200m a year is spent in Scotland on alcohol advertising; £1.5m on education about its effects), is also a key element in modern Scotland’s public health disaster.

Since 2000-1, however, a change of tone has been detectable in the selling of Hogmanay. Gargantuanism is in retreat. The endless cliches – ‘the biggest and best party on the planet’, ‘the focal point of the world’ – are less reiterated. And numbers inside the cordoned area have been further reduced, to 100,000. The new sponsor is a bank rather than beer and music companies. The street party is still sold as ‘an alcohol-fuelled extravaganza’, but firework displays are now launched from each of Edinburgh’s ‘seven’ hills.

The purpose is to ‘shift Hogmanay from its city-centre focus and into communities across the capital with a more family-oriented approach’, say the promoters. The uneasy social parcellisation is clear. But in the context of the previous nine years, these are revolutionary words. The Evening News evades the tensions with an obligatory sneer at its southern neighbour’s lack of preparation: ‘London’s damp squib proves yet again, if proof were indeed needed, that the only place to be at midnight on December 31 is Edinburgh – the only UK capital which knows how to throw a party’.

The shift of language registers but also disguises a deeper transition. Edinburgh is slowly being restored to its citizens.

Nostalgia versus memory

What was there before the barriers were erected that is still a resource for the future? There is in Scotland no golden age, although the years of post-war consensus allowed the illusion to be sustained. Can we eschew the bad faith of nostalgic regret – persistent theme of historicising commentary – as it casts its roseate glow over preceding generations? The remembrance of a child’s eye can be compulsively attractive and yet cloud true historical judgment.

So, yes, I recall as a small boy in the 1960s being taken to the Tron, meeting there by chance friends of my father, and walking lengthily home with them as our ‘first-foot’. (Anyone taking young children, or indeed elderly relatives, to the city centre today would have to be crazy, or like Bogart – misinformed). In the absence of any planning or marketing, the experience – too spontaneous to call it an ‘event’ – belonged to whoever turned up. At home, the traces of an older tradition remained in the house cleaning and sense of anticipation before the bells. Liz Lochhead, in View of Scotland/Love Poem, beautifully evokes the atmosphere: ‘If we’re to even hope to prosper/this midnight must find us/how we would like to be’.

Yet the place of Charlotte Square and Craigmillar, of Irvine Welsh and Muriel Spark, has never been an easy community. Everyone raised or domiciled in Edinburgh acquires some sense of these enormous social divides. How can such a city be successful in business terms while satisfying its citizens’ needs? This dilemma is not easily managed.

There is a national dimension too. While rootless revellers and the agencies which need them might feed off and recycle the seductive resource-pool of Scottish ‘uniqueness’, the intricate layers of an emerging Scotland impel work of imagination towards an altogether different, consciously comparative and modern, form of self-understanding.

There is no way back to the affective communities of old. That kind of intimacy and security, as well as oppressiveness, is gone forever. But the Edinburgh template, with its sundering of generational bonds and confiscation of public space, is no answer. So, where to turn? If the newly-commodified Hogmanay is still, after all, only the latest version, not the sinister corruption of something pure and timeless – what is it really?

The artists, as ever, are in the vanguard of revelation. Scotland was re-imagined beyond defeat and tartan strangulation in the 1980s by Edwin Morgan and Alastair Gray. Edinburgh, with its dislocated connection to its own country, is a harder case. The mordant dystopia of Paul Johnson’s Water of Death, where the Edinburgh of 2025 is ruled by a Council of City Guardians organising a compulsory lottery and year-round festival in the ‘central tourist zone’, is one illumination of the present. Watching the animated crowds, ‘you could almost accept that the system was working’. Johnson’s fellow crime writer Ian Rankin has talked of the ‘Hogmanay madness’, where ‘we’re told when and how to celebrate, everything provided for’. The artist and phenomenon Richard Demarco, a neglected visionary, has proposed an inspired, alternative vision of ‘Edinburgh as a total artwork’. These are scattered seeds, which have yet to germinate. A city, and a Hogmanay, over which its own people can truly claim ownership is still some way off.

Can a publicly organised celebration be both a global spectacle and a truly communal event? However this question is answered, in the end, as ever, the quality of experience within and between people will be at the heart. And if we love or are just lucky when the moment comes, Liz Lochhead affirms a millennial truth: ‘And this is where we live. /There is no time like the/present for a kiss’.

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