Thursday, 1 January 2015

FIRST-FOOT FORWARD INTO THE NEW YEAR with VALERIE LAWS

Last New Year I was in Sydney - apocalyptic fireworks!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

This post should go live at midnight, some time after which my boyfriend and I will be heading back from our friends’ house party. When we arrive home we shall deploy the motley collection of objects I shall take with us or previously place near the front door step: a box of matches/lighter, a bottle of drink (usually whisky but could be wine or juice), some salt, a piece of wood/coal, and bread/something edible. We will make sure he goes into the house first, for he will be the 'first foot' through the door in 2015, carrying these objects representing fire, fuel, food and drink, with the hope that the whole year to come will see us well supplied with these essentials and therefore Good Luck.

First-footing Kit - salt, coal, whisky and bread, aka the basics.

When I was a bairn in the north east of England, New Year’s Eve was celebrated as much as it is in Scotland under the name of Hogmanay, though in the south it wasn’t much noticed. Up here, everyone would set out party food (grapefruits studded with cocktail sticks bearing cubes of cheese, pineapple chunks, silverskin onions and stubs of ‘cocktail sausages’ and the like) and drinks (the usual stuff but possibly even sophisticated Snowballs; exotic ‘Egg Flip’ or Advocaat with lemonade and a dash of Rose’s lime, plus a cocktail cherry) in their houses and then people in the street went from house to house carousing, until just before midnight every door had a man shivering outside it, exchanging banter with fellow victims, pushed out into the snow clutching his symbolic objects, waiting for the chimes of Big Ben to drown out Andy Stewart’s White Heather Club on TV. As soon as midnight chimed, these exiles charged gratefully back indoors to continue getting mortal.

Sophisticated party food of my childhood. We knew how to live!

It’s supposed to be a tall dark man who fulfils this role, my boyfriend happens to be both, but you get as near as you can to this with whatever is to hand. Why a tall dark man? No idea. Has it worked? Hard to say – bad things have happened but I’m still here so I must have had enough food and fuel to keep body and soul on nodding terms. I'm already luckier than many to have a home for my boyfriend to stand outside waiting to first-foot. This time last year I was in Sydney watching spectacular fireworks over the Harbour, but there's nowt wrong with Whitley Bay.

Whitley Bay - nowt wrong with this!

I’m still keeping up first-footing because I love old traditions, especially local ones which can be forgotten so easily – I often read indignant claims that celebrating NYE is an ‘American’ idea we’ve slavishly copied in the last few years – but also because it’s worth giving magic a go. We still believe in magic, many of us, whether we’d admit it or not. Every bit of lying water still has coins dropped into it, it’s an ancient reflex, to appease or please the spirit guardians/nymphs or whatever we feel in our primitive souls is there, even if it’s a litter-strewn pool in a crappy shopping mall. We still ‘touch wood’. We develop methods of trying to have some control or say in things that are too big to control but vital to our survival – the weather, the crops, the sea. Traditions should be binned if they involve suffering or denial of human rights, but five minutes of frostbite are nothing to the northern male (or female).

Magic! coins in water, an ancient reflex of modern times.
 
Now as the year changes, people are making resolutions, looking back at their 2014, looking ahead with hopes and fears, wondering what the new year will bring. As writers we wonder about all the things we can’t control – will anyone buy/publish our books, ask us to perform? Will it be better or worse than last year? Will we be able to write the ideas that whirl in our heads, or will we be found out as the talentless pretenders we sometimes fear ourselves to be in our darker moments? Perhaps the Tweets and Facebook statuses of some writers, constantly telling the world they are writers and #amwriting, are a way of claiming, and hence possibly creating, control over their writing lives. Otherwise I’m not sure why anyone else would care, we don’t tweet ‘#ampeeing’or #amscratchingmynose’.

Published this year: poetry &...

...my 2nd crime thriller
Perhaps we should be shivering outside the house clutching a laptop, a Kindle, a pen, a lightbulb maybe - the bottle of whisky would probably still be popular - waiting for the chimes of midnight to begin the adventure that will be 2015 for good or ill, and probably both. As it’s now just too late to try this, perhaps you can give it a go for 2016. This time last year, I had two books waiting to be published, crime thriller THE OPERATOR and new poetry collection THE FACEBOOK OF THE DEAD, and many related gigs, events, and workshops booked. This year, I’ve a commissioned crime short story coming out in an anthology with some ace crime writers, a new genre for me to try as I’ve only written crime in novel form before, and my play THE MAN AND THE DONKEY will be staged again at Customs House Theatre during the centenary in May 2015 of Jack Simpson’s death at Gallipoli at the age of 22 and subsequent heroic status in Australia more than in his native South Shields. Otherwise, who knows what’s in store?

My stage play on John Simpson Kirkpatrick at Gallipoli, restaged mid-May 2-15

May 2015 be a magic year for you and yours, whether you #arewriting or #not, and may you have food, fuel, drink, and a home for first-footing.

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12 comments:

Kathleen Jones said...

Lovely post Val and brought back such memories!! My grandfather (being Italian) was a very popular first-foot in North Shields. And we always used to go down to the quayside to celebrate the New Year. Happy New Year hinny!

julia jones said...

and happy new year from me too

Susan Price said...

Loved this post, Valerie. And we certainly celebrated New Year in the Midlands when I was a child - though we didn't call it Hogamanay, and it wasn't as full on as Christmas. We used to sing:

We've come to let the Noo 'Ear in,
T'owd out and new un in -
A pie-eye, a pie-eye, a pie a peppercorn.
So giz we summat to mek we glad
And we'll wish you good instead o' bad -
A pie-eye, a pie-eye, a pie a peppercorn.

Last night, my tall, dark-haired brother put salt, bread, whisky and money in a carrier-bag, went out the back door at a few seconds to midnight, and was admitted through the front door - and then we watched the hundreds of fireworks exploding over the Sandwell valley. (My partner is an ex-red-head, so the brother was chosen to first-foot.)

Mari Biella said...

Lovely post. I hope these old traditions manage to survive - they're a lot more fun than drinking cheap champagne and watching TV! Let's hope for a good 2015.

Chris Longmuir said...

Great post, Valerie. Who really knows where all these superstitions and customs originate, but it's said the custom for the tall dark man originates from Viking times when a fair-haired man at the door signified danger!

Lydia Bennet said...

thanks for lovely comments, all! Good to know you had it too Susan. I wonder, Chris - after all the Vikings came after the saxons who were fair too - and both lots won and so would have written the history and customs - interesting. hope you all had a good night! My boyfriend ended up first-footing at our hosts' house as well, I'm thinking of renting out his services next year...

Debbie Bennett said...

Cheese and pineapple on sticks. That takes me back to the grown-up parties I went to as a child!

Reb MacRath said...

Well done, Val. Though I'm tall and sandy-haired, I felt I was was firstfooting with you. Congratulations on what sounds like a great year for you.

Jan Needle said...

brilliant, that. as a culturally deprived southerner the only noo year joy i remember is being woken up by all the ships in portsmouth harbour blaring and tooting their horns. i'm a northerner now. much better...

happy new year everybody. toot toot!

Lydia Bennet said...

Thanks Reb and Jan!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Lovely post - and I love these old customs and traditions too. Sadly, Hogmanay isn't quite what it was, even in this village. Although coming back from a friend's house party on the other side of the village at about 2am on New Year's Day, we were treated to handshakes and kisses from people on their way home from elsewhere. But in the 'olden days' when I first moved here, i.e. the 1980s, people still went from house to house celebrating New Year. There was always shortbread, black bun, whisky, a big pan of soup ...
I've thrown coins into fountains or pools myself on various occasions. My husband used to be a trawlerman and the superstitions still cling to fishermen and even yachtsmen. Swan Vestas matches are NOT welcome on most boats up here! And I still remember the friend on the isle of Gigha who takes visitors on fishing trips, but who will never turn his boat 'against the sun.'

Sandra Horn said...

Lovely post! There are pockets of celebration here in the South - when I lived in Portsmouth, New Year was a riot, but strangely the first-footers were big hairy blokes dressed as women...or maybe that was only in that one area of the city. We open the door and go out with drinks to offer, and food in the house, hoping to hear the ships' sirens above the bloody bangers. This year, nobody about! We had to eat and drink the stuff ourselves, which was a terrible shame (ha!). However, the promised return of the silent (for repairs to the tower)Civic Centre clock for the New Year did happen and we could (just) hear the chimes. The clock plays 'Our God, Our Help In Ages Past)at four, eight and twelve, after the chimes, to celebrate Isaac Watts.