Saturday, 5 January 2008

missing in action – manchester’s new year party?!

ice sculpures in harbin

after the fanfare of recent non-stop celebrations, entertainments provided in every square or open space across town, being out and about on new year’s eve was something of a non-event, unnervingly post-apocalyptic, and walking through its streets as the clock struck the magic hour felt a bit like being the last person on earth.

just where was manchester’s new year? you know, manchester, the city that never sleeps, home of the infamous 24 hour party people?

watching the copious tv coverage of new year revelry round the world, i was struck by the fact that something was missing from the new year celebrations in our own fair city - an outdoor get together!

street parties in hong kong

quite apart from the usual marvels enjoyed by Brazilians, Australians, Parisians, across the length and breath of britain people were relishing outdoor delights as varied as fireworks from the london eye; 4 days of hogmanay festivities in Edinburgh culminating in open air concerts, spectacular fireworks and the dramatic burning of a gi-normous wicker stag; acrobatics and pyrotechnics in Cardiff; stilt walking and pantomime in leeds; not to mention the mind-boggling fireball ceremony in stonehaven - 50 boulder-sized balls set on fire and whirled around the heads of brave and presumably highly skilled fire acrobats.

the anticipation and excitement of people taking to the streets, gathering under town hall clocks, squares, harbours, parks or public spaces of any available kind, to enjoy the collective and truly egalitarian experience of standing cheek by jowl with friends, family, strangers, fellow citizens of the world, sing auld lang syne, count down to midnight, wish any and everyone peace and good will, hug and kiss the nearest stranger recklessly, all whilst basking in the extravagant open air displays of fireworks, burning stags or fire juggling stilt walkers, cavalcades of pipers and choirs - who wouldn’t feel a rush of optimism for the coming year or fleeting sense of connection to their fellows, to the planet and every wonderful thing on it?

fireworks over the parthenon

these civic versions of the old neighbourhood street party fill a modern void - to unify and bring people together. free, open air and available to all, these urban celebrations are a rare and welcome excuse to fling open our metaphorical front doors, be spontaneous and extend hellos outside of our normal social circles and restraints…

as a child new year was always seen in, not by paying £35 to go to the same shifty night club that normally costs you a tenner but with added sweat and crush, but locally with every house in the street joining in a casual mix up of parties or gatherings of cheap beer, baby-sham for the ladies, shandy and dandelion and burdock for the littl’uns, left over meats, cheese, biscuits and christmas cake to soak up the drinks. at midnight a dark haired man would be chosen to knock on everyone’s door and offer a piece of coal, bread and a drink, so that thresholds could be thrown open and good luck usher in the whole neighbourhood’s new year. the party would wind in and out of various houses, gardens and front doorsteps, kids running riot, eating and drinking too much, staying up far too late, the whole event ending sooner or later with a drunken, unsteady okey cokey, sleepy infants held aloft or clinging to dads’ backs as it snaked in and out of house after house, losing numbers along the way until the last door was wearily closed to drink or sleep it off in private…all this plus an inevitable scandal, a minor scrap or two, or at the very least an embarrassing rendition or routine with the spoons, penny whistle or ukulele from an elder, probably your own drunken granny.

what unites this memory with the current news coverage is a noble attempt at spontaneity and community bonding – an outdoor and potentially unruly revelry, where money need not change hands, where unlikely citizens and neighbours meet and mingle with no aim or purpose other than to be on the streets and celebrate a common event and desire. often these days this only happens when a triumphant football team returns home to show off some coveted trophy on the obligatory open top bus, or on bonfire night, when the oohs and aahs of shared approval and appreciation makes strangers smile shyly or momentarily catch each others eye without fear of offence or intentions being misunderstood, when celebrations briefly bring people together in a common expression of joy or pride. outside these shared experiences we generally live private and highly individualised lives, suspicious and mistrustful of the contact or kindness of strangers.

lanterns in iraq

in earlier times there were many more occasions for shared and common experiences: public rallies, street parties, harvest festivals, whit walks and may day parades were just a few. many of these are outmoded and impossible to resurrect or replicate, perhaps even undesirable, but they all met a similar need or requirement; they all connected individuals to each other, created social glue and fostered community and commonality. in our own times, the nearest people get to this feel good factor is at a football match or major sporting event, or via large scale music events such as glastonbury or bestival or burning man, and it is no coincidence that these type of festivals are proliferating, as the experience is exhilarating and contagious.

this craving, this fundamental need for collective encounters, for mutual bonding or grooming, if you like, perhaps even explains the huge impact of the death of lady di, being one of the few national public occasions we have really shared since world war two or the coronation over 50 years ago!

manchester is wearily proficient at providing all year round pseudo celebrations – christmas was effectively one month long party – so why the shyness over new year?? official explanations put our sorry lack of hogmannay festivities down to fear of drunken recklessness and ensuing crime…why no such fears in other cities, some which are reputedly renowned for enjoying a drink? was it the worry of crowd control – that didn’t seem to bother our capital city or new york or brazil or sydney…..the list goes on!!

the only explanation left then is one of economics – perhaps manchester simply isn’t interested in offering its citizens one night in the year that doesn’t obviously make a profit, where there isn’t something to purchase or consume, where there is no dress code, no £20 cocktails, no VIP rooms – nothing on offer except the cold night air and the anticipation and mutual optimism central to the build up to a brand new year, surrounded by and shared with your neighbours, known and unknown, where everyone is temporarily equal under the stars and the clock, if only for one precious minute…

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