NSL Blog

I + We = why? Up Helly Aa answers that question [1]

January 29, 2012

In No Straight Lines – I explore issues relating to identity/community/culture something that in a post modern world we struggle with. My friend Jane Young hails from the Shetland Isles and Jane wrote this post in 2009. I went looking for it as Jane shared some pictures of the recent Festival of light called Up Helly Aa yesterday.

As cumbersome institutions creak in the wake of recent economic and political shake-ups, we’re left with a choice: whether to deem the wave of change a lethal tsunami come to wipe us out, or surf it like the greatest wave of our lives. Disorientation is an unavoidable symptom of the status quo being disrupted; and disruption is both inevitable and necessary. In camp tsunami lie flailing agencies, publishers, record companies, governments, educational establishments and other intermediaries struggling to stay relevant and guard the floodgates, as networked surfers form tribes and leverage their power to organise without organisations. We’re square pegs in round holes, operating within industrial revolution legacy systems. Mass production, mass marketing, mass broadcasting; co-existing with ultra-connectedness. The truth is out there. Google it. Then apply your newly honed bullshit filter to weed out the facts from the crap.

Fear-gripped individuals are a sad byproduct of our chaotic times. Having lived through the media – embracing consumerism as a form of identity – our false expectations are shattered by a reality that never quite lives up to the star spangled promises, regardless of a lifetime’s striving. The identities we’ve constructed through stuff and work have left us emotionally barren and unfulfilled. Our fears are amplified by the ‘availability heuristic‘, whereby our minds assess the likelihood of risks by asking how readily examples come to mind. Media hype has bred an unhealthy familiarity with risk – from financial failure to terrorism.

Added to our risk-laden make-or-break burden is the lack of a community safety net. If I lose my job I’m done for. If I can’t pay my mortgage I’m sunk. I can’t afford for anything to break.

This fear is less stark in remote, geographically bound communities. I’m originally from Shetland, the most northerly island in the UK, with a population of around 22,000 people. There’s 210km of North Sea between the island and the northernmost tip of Scotland. It’s a fourteen hour boat journey to reach the UK mainland. The pursuit of material wealth in Shetland is not at all high on the priority list, despite being one of the richest islands in Europe. Millionaire fisherman are indistinguishable from crofters on the bread line, wellies and all. Consumerism offers identity tags, but tags are not required when everyone has your mark.

Such tight-knit communities – in which you’re stuck with a cross-section of society in close quarters, with few external reference points – have all the binds and safety of a net. There’s insufficient population for segregation by age, occupation, or values. Protected by the collective, you’ve less need to protect yourself. Lose your house? Probably won’t happen. Don’t really think about it. Won’t be homeless anyway.

Once the need to self-preserve is stripped away, decorum and reputation coveting evaporate (reputation IP is a handful of sand when it’s impossible to hide anything), setting free the ability to lose yourself; an essential human need we’ve forfeited since feudal festivities were quashed by capitalism.

Shetland is rife with opportunities to lose yourself; and work is incidental. Some companies don’t pay sick pay on Mondays. Some send you home if it’s a really sunny day, at which point folk strip off in the searing nineteen degree heat (!), head to The Street with decks and speakers, party all day, perhaps jump off the pier and undoubtedly don fancy dress.

The focus on festivity is evident in folksy status criteria. In London we might strive for status as; Cleverest, Best Connected or Richest. In Shetland, you’re more likely to win acclaim as Best Dancer, Best Fighter, Hardest Partyer or Best Musician.

The biggest Shetland festival is Up Helly Aa, a fire festival to welcome in the light after a long dark winter. Participants (a large chunk of the population), known as Guizers, form themed squads and spend months rehearsing their acts. There’s a super-squad, the viking Jarl Squad (who’ve all grown compulsory beards) – headed up by the prestigious Guizer Jarl (king of the festivities), which leads a procession around the town, each man carrying a huge blazing torch. Some kids have trust funds set up to pay for their future role in the Jarl Squad, to cover the hand-crafted chainmail tunics, brass shields, reindeer-skin boots and helmets decorated with ravens’ wings.

The spectacle culminates in all the Guizers throwing their torches into an ornate galley ship, built by the Jarl Squad in the debaucherous Galley Shed throughout the previous year. Once the galley has burned to the ground, each squad jumps on their squad bus and tours the local halls, performing their act… then onto the next hall. More soup. More whisky. More dancing. The acts deteriorate throughout the night.


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