More than bread and circuses

I do really love a good street procession/festival, especially if it involves fire and/or fireworks.

What I really want to do is join in – one of the reasons I run a street-band – but failing that I’ll very happily stand and watch. For hours and hours, if need be, in the freezing cold, crushed cheek by jowl with any number of complete strangers , lost in the simple pleasures of…well, what, exactly? What is it that I enjoy so much?

More practically, what makes for a really great procession?

Most practically of all, why is it getting harder and harder to organize stirring events that sear themselves into peoples’ memories?

After all, judging by the triumphantly Olympic summer we’ve just enjoyed, we’re really good at this public spectacle-cum-celebration thing. Not just when it comes to the huge, broadcast-around-the world stadium stuff, but also the unprecedented programme of smaller regional and local events that blanketed pretty much the whole country with celebratory fabulousness of all sorts.

Well….yes and no…

Yes, the Olympic ceremonies were hugely enjoyable, impressively ambitious in conception and looked pretty dammed smooth in execution, given the thousands and thousands of people involved. The Torch Relay (whatever you think about the sponsorship aspect of it all) was a miracle of co-ordination across the entire country.

Yes, there were some genuinely inventive and engaging regional and local events. I went to some and performed in others.

And yet…

‘The World Famous’, one of the country’s best, and best known organizers of large-scale public pyrotechnic events have recently announced they’re quitting. Their reasons make interesting, if disturbing reading. (See for yourself here)

And yet…

Unless you were actually one of the thousands taking part or watching, there in the stadium, chances are your memory of the big ceremonies is media dependent. You watched it on telly, live, or later on You-tube or on demand, or you’re going to buy the DVD.

So ?

Nothing lasts forever, and how else could you experience world-scale events if not via media of one sort or another?

True and true, but I still can’t help feeling less than sanguine about the immediate future of mass-participation outdoor events. We’re in danger of losing something precious, and most of us won’t even know it’s gone…just another of those ‘can’t quite put my finger on it’ feelings of general dissatisfaction, another vague sense of loss.

The current obsession with health and safety really, really doesn’t help.

Neither does the speed with which openly accessible, public spaces are disappearing . You’d be surprised how many high streets, squares, parks and other supposedly public spaces are, in fact, nothing of the kind.

Taxing though they can be, though, I think practical concerns like these (and they are proliferating at a dizzying pace) are just symptoms.

To try and get some sense of the underlying causes I think you need to go back to those first simple questions – ‘what is it I enjoy so much?’ and ‘what makes for a really great procession/event?’

It’s easy enough to say what it’s not about.

It’s not about a sad succession of lorries loaded with limp banners, stressed kids half-heartedly miming to pounding pop tunes, all celebrating nothing much more than the current hit TV shows and films. If that’s the best we can do, better not.

It seems to me all the really memorable events I’ve experienced – as participant or spectator (a distinction I’ll be coming back to) – have a number of common factors:

  • An unusually high level of emotional intensity as an experience – arising from (amongst other things)
  • a certain amount of (usually) physical risk or danger, experienced by
  • a critical mass of people who have
  • a real connection with what’s happening because they have
  • a shared history, or some other commonality
  • and for it still to be possible for ‘strangers’ to feel involved.

These are things I’ve thought (and cared) about for ages, but the immediate cause of all this is a recent visit to Lewes for their extra-ordinary bonfire night celebrations (and the long conversation on the way, during and on the long road home with Simon Tipping, one of the directors of Milton Keynes carnival arts company Festive Road), so let’s start in Lewes.

Hundreds of people from the ‘bonfire societies’ engaged in lots of of torch-lit processions winding back and forth through the narrow streets of what is still in layout largely a mediaeval town centre, including bands of all descriptions, 17 burning crosses commemorating some 16thC Catholic Martyrs, a burning barrel gets flung in the river, then everyone streams off to one of the bonfire societies bonfires, where big things are burnt and there’s the loudest firework displays I’ve heard for ages.

It starts about half five, we left around midnight, but were reliably informed that it goes on ’till the early hours of the morning, when a bonfire tends to appear at the end of the high street and the less than sober amuse themselves by trying to leap over it…

What you don’t get from such a bald description is just how exciting it is being jammed in amongst thousands and thousands of people, so close to the paraders you could easily burn yourself on a passing barrel full of torches. As the processions wind back and forth through the town (sometimes crossing, sometimes passing each other in the same street but going in different directions) the stewards expertly move the crowd around with ropes and loud hailers in a good-natured surge and flow that becomes a part of the whole thing.

It builds over time, as well – instead of the single procession which might last an hour or more, here they have at least four (I can’t recall, not having the programme to hand to check) and they keep going back and forth for the best part of three and a half hours, as the whole place fills up with people (including a significant percentage of the population of Brighton, if the constant stream of folks flooding out of the station is anything to go by) and the energy-level ramps up and up – more people, more noise, more fireworks chucked about (a Lewes tradition – they use bird-scarers).

For the locals, the history behind this all is obviously still very much alive – at the bonfire we attended there was a scaffolding platform atop which a costumed priest-figure ranted about the dangers of excessive popistry (I think..we were a way back in the crowd, where the p.a. Reached only intermittently) for a goodly while, dodging the steady stream of fireworks flying out of the crowd towards him, whilst his assistant beat out the flames and got off a fair few return shots of his own. All very odd, surreal even, and again, strangely exciting.

If you’re at all into this kind of thing you HAVE to go to Lewes for bonfire night – it’s one of a steadily diminishing number of places where this kind of collective wildness still goes on. We were told that there have been several attempts to put a stop to it in recent years, on health and safety grounds. People have lost their sight in firework accidents. So far, attempts to scale it back or stop it all together have failed, largely due to the sheer numbers of people involved, and the fact that it doesn’t ‘belong’ to the usual authorities. The balance of risk and benefit is generally felt to still be in favour of it continuing. Catch it while you can.

Simon and I were genuinely surprised – and delighted – by the intensity of the experience in Lewes, and it brilliantly illustrates several of those key factors; a certain feeling of danger, a critical mass of people (definitely helped by the narrow, winding streets) and a clear feeling that the participants knew exactly what they were doing (many of them had obviously been doing it for years) and, much more important, why.

They do try to explain to visitors as well, there’s a very informative programme (which of course we didn’t read beforehand) and several times people in the crowd put us straight about what was going on and why.

As a spectator it’s nice to have some sense of what’s going on, and why, but it’s not completely essential. As long as you’re prepared to let yourself get swept along by the press of events, you might not have much of a clue, might not even speak the language, but there are circumstances where you can still have an extra-ordinarily intense and satisfying experience as a complete outsider.

This I know from personal experience due to the generosity of friends of friends, and a huge stroke of luck.

Lucky to be in Rome some years ago in May, lucky also that my travelling companion’s friends lived in a small village in the hills above Rome, and that we all ended up trooping down the road to go to the May Day celebrations in a hill town called Sante Oreste.

Luckiest of all because this was (and I very much hope still is) a local event, for local people.

This being Italy, of course it starts with La Passegiatta late afternoon, everyone dressed up in their best promenading through the winding, stony streets. Every now and then the narrow streets are dressed with huge (two-story high), arch-shaped lanterns – marking the route of the subsequent procession, I assume.

As it starts to get dark, there is a general drift towards the main piazza, at the top of the hill, where as many people as possible cram themselves into the church amongst a sea of candles. Eventually, after much singing and not a little shuffling about, the Madonna emerges in the form of a substantial (three or four foot high) rococo painting on a very solid, gilded plinth-type construction, born aloft by a team of sweating men. Preceded by the Padre, microphone in hand, singing away, a procession forms and winds through the streets. Some people carry lanterns, some have candles in jam jars, many just carry candles in their hands.

As the droning priest walks on, pretty much everyone just joins in behind him, and the Madonna, so a steadily growing flood of people winds its way through the narrow streets, until we all come down to the bottom of the town.

There’s a long stretch of more or less flat road here, where the procession ambles to a halt. Prayers are intoned, more hymns sung…and then, out of the distant night, an enormous mound of fire appears, topped with a huge burning cross. The slopes of the hill at the end of the road are literally covered with bonfires, an extra-ordinarily thrilling sight.

Despite the deeply Catholic character of everything up to this point, it’s the most completely pagan thing I’ve ever seen in my life – a solar festival if ever there was one, and I’ll never forget it.

Apart from the sheer spectacle of the burning hill, there’s several other things that stuck in my mind.

First and foremost was the sense that this was very much a local event, not something for the tourists (of whom there might have been a few, but certainly not many), everyone from the villages for miles around had obviously made the effort to get there, dressed in their Sunday best (this in a country where this still means something). I felt distinctly privileged to be there at all.

The other thing that has lingered was the strangely matter of fact feeling to it all. The tension started to rise as everyone waited for the bonfires to be lit, and there was a huge cheer, but despite this spectacular conclusion it was one of the least theatrical events I think I’ve ever attended, yet it still left a deep and lasting impression.

Unlike the people processing their merry way around Lewes, here the Padre and his attendant were not performing, but simply doing what a priest does in that particular set of circumstances. Almost everyone here was doing what they need to do to obtain the desired end, even if they couldn’t articulate what this might be, precisely.

Which, it occurs to me, is a pretty good functional definition of a ritual – a set of actions carried out collectively by the whole community, for the whole community, united by the belief that this is what you do to ensure…good fortune, the return of the sun, the blessings of the Virgin upon all present…the specifics aren’t the point here, it’s the nature of the process.

The distinction between performer and spectator are dissolved here. No-one is performing, most are participants in a joint undertaking. The only spectators are the few strangers (like me and my friends).

There was also no sense of conscious anachronism, as there often is in this country. Usually we have only a vague sense of the history, and even when we do know the story the really deep emotional connections have almost always attenuated, stretched to breaking point.

It’s almost impossible to create something with this depth and resonance out of thin air – it takes years and years; generations, probably. As the central images pass through thousands of imaginations the corners are worn off, and a long, slow process of distillation occurs until all that’s left is so concentrated, so potent, that a few drops are all it takes to intoxicate thousands.

How to preserve (the few drops we have left of) this precious essence?

Well, I’m not at all sure we can, at least not directly.

For one thing, each such event owes it’s unique imagery and character to a specific set of social and economic conditions that prevailed in the originating community for long enough for the thing to put down deep roots. Nothing stands still forever and healthy traditions require refreshing, but slowly, over generations. Change the context – those social etc. conditions – too rapidly and the natural evolution of the event is disrupted.

At worst, fatally, and the event simply dies.

At best you end up with a hollow echo of something that used to be really meaningful for everyone involved, which gradually denatures to become something vaguely enjoyable that you do on this day, in this place because…well just because. Like most local carnivals throughout the UK.

Sometimes other things come along and gradually fill the void, and the whole cycle begins again. This doesn’t happen often, though, and I can’t think of a single example where it’s been done on purpose. (The York and Chester mystery cycles could be the exceptions, but it’s too soon to tell)

Simply trying to preserve the mechanics of a particular activity or event rarely works if the context that supported it has died. It turns into a revival, something else entirely – like Morris Dancing.

This isn’t necessarily fatal – the general Folk revival that started in the late 50s and early 60s is probably over, but the Folk Music scene has exploded in the past decade or two. There has been time for a couple of generations of young musicians to turn the music inside-out, some radical re-invention has greatly expanded the boundaries of what can be considered ‘Folk’ music, and the whole seems in robust health.

Amongst many other factors (such as huge changes in the way music is distributed, and the relative ease of ‘packaging’ a piece of music for re-sale) it may be that the structure that has grown up in the Folk Scene – from grass-roots clubs which encourage participation, through a vibrant festival scene all they way up to increasing levels of wide public acceptance and commercial success, supporting a growing number of professional practitioners who make a reasonable living – has as much to do with this as anything else.

Nothing like this exists in the world of celebrations and events – there are growing numbers of highly skilled and experienced professional practitioners, true. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, however, there is very little real evidence of any widespread re-invigoration of flagging local traditions or the very deep degrees of community development and coherence from which such things might spring. It may just be, of course, that they haven’t been around long enough to make a lasting difference. The notion of a professional ‘Community Artist’ (horrible phrase, but a better has yet to be coined) is, after all, only about 30 or 40 years old. We’re all still infants from the perspective of tradition.

The best we can do at present, I suspect, is recognise the value of the few ‘real’ events (like Lewes) that have managed to survive, and allow them to continue as the exceptions that prove the general health & safety rules.

In practice, of course, things don’t arrange themselves as neatly as that. It’s more like a continuum with events spread across a whole spectrum of what we could call ‘health’ (for want of a better word, here taken to stand for the complex of things we’ve been discussing so far).

At one end, well towards the ‘robust’ end of the scale stand things like May Day in St Oreste, perhaps with Lewes bonfire night a little further on.

In the middle might be things like the Orange Parades in Central Scotland – whatever you think about the politics, it’s hard to deny their continuing validity as expressions of collective identity on the part of immigrant populations.

The Gala Days (also a central Scottish tradition) are a bit further along still; most people still know where they came from (miners and steelworkers marches) but the complete, and very rapid collapse of those industries in the area threatens their continuing survival.

Further towards the ‘poorly’ (in the sense of genuine functional connections to the populations they serve) end of the spectrum I would be inclined to place events like ‘Burning the Clocks’ in Brighton and the Lord Mayor’s Parade at the Thames Festival.

Here are only distant echoes of historical antecedents, and we are now almost exclusively concerned with spectacle. They are thrilling (particularly for performers in the parade) mainly due to sheer scale; tens of thousands of spectators generate a lot of noise and energy, but precious little actual participation in any real sense. Civic-funded ‘bread and circuses’, they are big, public parties.

Poorly-est of all maybe things like the annual Northampton Carnival, a hodgepodge of local groups pumped up with hired-in professional troupes to provide visual scale and spectacle.

In the terms we’ve been considering, there’s no real reason for events like this to exist at all, other than that someone – doubtless well-intentioned – at some time thought it would be a good idea to have a carnival. Everything has to start somewhere, and it would be unduly harsh to dismiss all the many events that live at this end of the spectrum, but every reason to try and help them move towards the healthier middle.

It is possible to make real, involving events from scratch, but it takes much, much longer than you’d think, and most funders will support.

A final personal example…

In 1987 I was a young, inexperienced would-be ‘community artist’ (whatever that meant), sharing a studio with artist Laurie Barbour in a combined school in Milton Keynes. We’d undertaken a number of successful, small scale projects within the school, and were looking for something a bit bigger. There happened to be no local play-scheme that year, so we decided to step into the breach and run one ourselves. We realised it might be easier to raise funding and get people involved if we had a theme of some sort – a big simple idea.

So we decided to make a life-size Viking Ship out of cardboard (some quick research revealed a tenuous local connection, in that the Viking incursions shuddered to a halt a mere five miles or so down the road).

We raised some money, rounded up lots of our friends (including my sister, bless her) to help and with around 150 local kids had a wonderful fortnight during which we did, indeed, make a 50ft long Viking Ship out of cardboard…and gallons and gallons of copydex (I’ll never forget one poor little lad, who crawled into a corner and poured copydex all over his front…and then could not rise from a crouch as it dried, so it took us ages to find him at the end of the afternoon. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard an infant creak. Luckily, he was wearing old clothes and his mother saw the funny side)

The ship was displayed at the Central Library, and during the subsequent autumn and spring terms a huge programme of Viking-related work was undertaken with every class in the school…most memorably including Mr Prentice (the best teacher I’ve ever worked with, bar none) leading his entire class on a spur-of the moment Viking Raid against another, Saxon class, to capture their illuminated bible and other valuable (hand-made) artefacts.

We didn’t plan it that way, but eventually the project involved every single pupil in the school, all the teachers…in fact all the school staff, including dinner ladies, cleaners and caretaker – Laurie’s natural approach to things being completely inclusive.

We were invited to take the ship up to York, for the annual Jorvik Viking festival in the autumn of that year – another amazing memory, nearly freezing to death on the back of a flat-bed truck being cheered around the streets of York.

Finally, in the spring of the following year, realising we should probably get rid of the thing, we decided on a proper, Viking style send off. We hired a local pyrotechnician, who helped us build a 70ft long bonfire on the school field. (How many Head Teachers would have the bottle to permit anything like that today?)

We thought we’d have a bit of a procession around the place to rally a bit of an audience, just an afterthought really, so we made some quick props, Laurie led the procession, whilst I stood clutching the rough staff which I’d nailed a deer antler to not 5 minutes before, still as a statue in front of the ship…for what I thought would be about 5 minutes.

15 minutes later, Laurie and the procession returned with what the police later told us they estimated as an audience of around 3,500 people – the equivalent of the whole population of the place, plus some visitors from the next town along the road.

I can still remember the truly ground-shaking roar as we hurled torches into the ship and three massive columns of fire sprang into the night. Loudest of all were the local fireman, standing on top of their fire engine amongst the crowd, leaping up and down and yelling like maniacs.

That was over 20 years ago, and they still talk about it – I know, because several times I’ve come across people who were pupils at the school at the time.

Somehow, by a mixture of luck, the energy of youth and some unformed but deeply-held instincts about the nature of real celebrations, we managed to involve hundreds of people in co-creating something that will remain with everyone involved for life.

So I know it can be done, but in over 30 years I’ve only done it myself this one time, and I’ve only seen it done a handful of times.

That time it took nearly two years, the active participation not only of the whole school, but significant numbers of people from the community the school served, and was only possible at all because we were young, and eager enough to (in effect, by working on other things in between) fund a lot of it ourselves. We didn’t have the sort of long-term strategy a larger funder would demand, each phase of the project evolved naturally out of the circumstances and the people involved.

A good example of something that worked because we managed, largely unwittingly, to create something that substantial numbers of people were able to connect with, something that held more than a superficial meaning.

It was perhaps, the sort of thing you can only do when you’re too young and inexperienced to realise what you might be taking on. It could easily have been the start of an annual event of some sort, but we were shattered, and ready to move on to the next thing.

If it takes two years (and a lot of hard work) to get to a potentially good starting point – from the point of view of fully functional, sustainable real celebrations – it’s not hard to see why this might not happen so often these days.

This year we’ve proved beyond doubt that we can do the spectacles, the big shows that give thousands and thousands of people a bit of a boost.

Delicious though these ‘high-sugar’ parties are, though, as the recession really bites and the gap between rich and poor grows ever greater, we’re going to need things which help bind us together more than ever.

We need to value and jealously protect those few surviving traditions which still make sense in a rapidly changing world.

We need the functional events, which work because they serve a real purpose, allowing people to come together in the expression of something deeper than a generalised desire for a good time. The things which include genuine participation, and remind us of all the things we have in common.

Even though they take much longer to build, are hard work and though success is far from guaranteed.

When times are tight, we need more than bread and circuses. If London decides it can’t afford the Lord Mayor’s Parade any more loads of people will be sad, some professional companies might be very pissed off…but that’s all.

We need things like Lewes, which people value so highly they simply won’t let it be cancelled – for whatever reason.

What can we do about it?

Light a candle. Better, light a fire-torch or a flare and damn the dark.

And the next time someone tells you, “you can’t go down there, can’t do that there, it’s against health and safety, it’ll frighten the children/horses/elderly….” thank them politely, go away and find a lot more people, find out what they care about, and come back and do it anyway.

Do it properly, safely and professionally.

Prove them wrong.

Demonstrate that such things constitute an acceptable level of risk, especially in the face of the alternatives – fragmented, dis-functional communities, excluded and despairing youth, collapsing local economies.

Sometimes a procession will become a riot, true, but it’s mercifully rare and I’ve never heard of the reverse – a riot becoming a procession.








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