Every year on this day of days my mother would buy some black bun in case of first-footers. And every year my father would bolt the door in case of first-footers. I don’t think our house was unique or weird - indeed I think it perfectly summed up Scotland’s schizophrenic attitude to Hogmanay.
Our wee cock sparra’ chests could swell with pride at Hogmanay being officially registered as yet another Scottish invention and gift from us to the world like television, the telephone, tarmacadam, hollow-pipe drainage and Cremola Foam. But what was Hogmanay, exactly?
We laughed when the world called it a “celebration” because we thought it was just an excuse for a massive bevvy-up during which many of us would get quite morose. We laughed when the world called it a “festival” because it really only consisted of lots of traipsing with Agnews carry-outs, then lots of blagging at front doors in the hope of gaining entry, a procedure immortalised in a Billy Connolly gag: “Wullie said it would okay.” None of these gatherings, by the way, was anything like The White Heather Club, with prancing in patent pumps and frills, despite what the world thought.
And then, if you were unlucky enough to have your home invaded by drunken strangers or even if you’d adopted my father’s precautions, you then had to endure the two most boring days in the calendar. Everything was shut. You couldn’t even buy a pint of milk, or, if you’d hosted a party or rather had a party forced upon you, a vat of industrial-strength cleaning fluid. The New Year holiday felt more like a punishment. Festival? What a joke.
But all that time were we secretly yearning for Hogmanay to switch from indoors to outdoors, for all the house parties to become a giant party outdoors? Did we desperately want to cast off our traditional reserve and turn into raving exhibitionists, cast off our clothes and jump in icy waters, brandish flaming torches and hot mulled drinks, but didn’t know to ask for any of it? Well, this is what we’ve got now, at least in the capital. Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is a proper festival, clinching for Scotland the title of world champions at ringing out the old, ringing in the new. And we haven’t seen the half of it.
Underbelly, the new impresarios, promise an expansion of the spectacular which will be “exciting and hugely ambitious”. How much excitement, you wonder, can Auld Reekie take? And, really, how much bigger does the biggest street-bash on the planet have to get?
You wonder what Mike Heron makes of Edinburgh now. The old hippy from the Incredible String Band has just written a memoir rich in smoky detail of the city of his formative years. We’re talking late 1950s-early 1960s - almost pre-history - when Hogmanay would have been even quieter than the version I experienced a decade later.
I keep turning the pages of You Know What You Could Be (Riverrun) hoping Heron will describe a typical Auld Year’s Night. He hasn’t done it yet but I get the picture: the word he uses to describe his middle-class existence is “stifling”. It’s a place of strained jam, stewed tea and a fug of Capstan Full Strength on the top deck during the two-bus journey to George Heriot’s School in the company of his father who’s head of English and nicknamed Kipper.
Heron stews at school, straining to get out. Then he stews at William Home Cook and Co, straining to get out of the accountancy firm. He’s desperate for something to happen in douce Edinburgh and then everything happens. He steps on to a stage fantasising about “hormone-charged screaming girls wildly dancing their inhibitions away”. The book then throws up a line that rates as just about the most throbbingly exciting I’ve ever read in a music biography: “The gigs kept coming: Corstorphine, Portobello, Oxgangs ... ”
Maybe Heron only emerged from Edinburgh - to help pioneer psychedelic folk and perform at Woodstock, though in a very Scottish defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory way, not make the film of the festival - precisely because it contained Corstorphine, Portobello and Oxgangs. Maybe if it been trying to compete with Rio, Sydney and New York he wouldn’t. Now it seems that Glasgow, for its latest makeover, will be striving to ape the success of Barcelona, Berlin and Copenhagen. Why can’t our cities just be themselves?
Underbelly are new to Edinburgh’s Hogmanay but not complete strangers. They’re the guys who’ve turned Christmas in the capital into a six-week affair. You might have drunk their gluhwein or skated on their pop-up rink, through hopefully not at the same time. Unique Events, who’ve lost Edinburgh’s Hogmanay to them, feel like the football manager who gets sacked only to see the reserve team coach he didn’t rate promoted into his job. Miffed, they fear for the future of the main event.
Underbelly are accused of over-commercialism and turning the city centre at Christmas-time into a gaudy mess. Maybe small children love the bright lights and maybe I would have loved them at that age, Mike Heron too. But as my father liked to provocatively remark: “Christmas? It’s an English festival.”
If the fun and frolics become too generic, like they could happen anywhere, then no matter how profitable they will irritate locals. Edinburgh is not just anywhere.
Re-form the Incredible String Band, though, and I might come out and listen.