A world away from Brexit – Up Helly A’ 2020

I spent Brexit Day in Lerwick, up above 60ºN and some 760 miles from London – further from the carnival in Parliament Square than any other place in the British Isles; and, travelling eastwards from London, you’d have reached Poland before you got as far again.

I was not only escaping Brexit, of course, but attending the 2020 Lerwick Up Helly A’, which pays tribute to Shetlands’ Norse origins, proceeding from pageantry (with costumes of the main squad taking literally years to work up and build because of the intricate details worked into the designs), to the drama of the torchlit parade through the darkened streets of Lerwick, to one massive all-night party, if you’re lucky enough to get a ticket to one. The history lies in marking the end of Yule, with the days visibly beginning to stretch out after the winter darkness, and in youths returning from the Napoleonic Wars with an appetite for doing things with gunpowder and, later, barrels of burning tar around Lerwick’s narrow, steep streets. The Lerwick Up Helly A’ – one of 12 fire festivals taking place around Shetland from January-March, is the second in the season and, with (this year) 845 marchers (‘guizers’) in fancy dress, it’s not only Shetlands’ but Europe’s biggest fire festival. It’s always held on the last Tuesday in January and, famously, is never, ever cancelled for the weather – the only time it has been cancelled was when it coincided with Winston Churchill’s funeral. Perhaps this explains why the Proclamation – traditionally posted at 6am on a giant board at Lerwick’s market cross – lists this year’s Guizer Jarl (Liam Summers) as the 100th such, although he actually appears to be the 101st named.

If you’re looking for a video which explains what Up Helly A’ is all about, this Shetland.org video is an excellent explanation – well worth 23 minutes of your time (and for a number of reasons, one of which is that the young woman presenter is a former Jarl’s Squad member (in the South Mainland Up Helly A’)). Though she ought also to have mentioned the magnificent beards on display.

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Up Helly A’ is a stamina and endurance event, not least for the Guizer Jarl’s squad – this year numbering 55 people and the only guizers to be dressed as Vikings. Their day starts before breakfast and they’re in costume all day (and then literally all night) – no mean feat when a dose of the ‘flu had affected much of the main squad this year and when Liam’s costume weighed some 30kgs (66lbs), plus axe and shield representing probably an additional 12-15kgs. To get to the end of the night and be as fresh for the last hall as you were for breakfast takes some doing.

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Controversially, however, the Lerwick Up Helly A’ has always excluded women and girls from participating as guizers; it is the only one of the twelve that does. Recently, there have been campaigns to change this which have attracted increasing media attention (see here for a Scottish perspective on this year’s event; and here for a UK one) as the festival has become more and better – and internationally – known. This year, ‘Reclaim the Raven’ brought ‘artivism’ to the existing information gathering and letter writing campaign of the more long-standing ‘Up Helly Aa for Aa’, with the group designing their own proclamation and, guerilla-style, attaching it at 5am to the market cross, on the opposite side to where the Proclamation is erected. This was removed (anonymously) at 8am and has not since been recovered even though those responsible were caught in the act on camera.

Whatever the weight of tradition, the reasons for not excluding women from a public space on the grounds only of their sex are surely stronger. Whatever happens next is clearly for the campaigns themselves to decide, but the Guizer Jarls’ motto – (‘We axe for what we want’) surely has something to commend it in the context of the typically expressed change mission of educate-agitate-organise. The spectre of people genuinely applying to participate as mixed squads but being met with point blank refusal – as happened this year (‘Activists attend London event’, Shetland Times 31/1/20, p. 6) – and teachers at Anderson High School having to inform the lads, and only the lads, in their classes about where to go to sign up for the Junior Up Helly A’ squad is appalling. It is unjustifiable and completely unsustainable to continue to exclude women and girls from the biggest fire festival in Europe, and it sends a completely wrong, and unhealthy, message to young girls in particular. Equality must be everywhere – or there is no equality, as the slightly surprised tone of the newspaper editorials linked above emphasise. The Lerwick Up Helly A’ Committee needs to change; and it needs to decide whether it wants to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 2020s or whether it wants to gain some credit, even at this late stage, by choosing to reform itself in line with the really quite modest, and certainly low key, demands of the local campaigners.

Senior level change will take time: with the new, and already magnificently bearded, member of the Committee being elected to take Liam’s place having to wait fifteen years for his shot at being Guizer Jarl, the earliest a woman could head the Lerwick procession would, at this point, be 2036. The world will have changed substantially by then – and hopefully the Committee will not at that point still be fighting the battles of the 1970s – while small (but significant) change can be accomplished immediately by allowing mixed squads into at least the ranks of the rest of the guizers from the 2021 Lerwick event onwards. When even the Shetland Times – not apparently a particular champion of change in this respect – points to the problems to Shetland society of the divisiveness of the debate, and expresses its hopes for Up Helly A’ to continue ‘in a way the whole community can celebrate it’, you know your time is up.

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Men dressed as women are a frequent sign in the skits put on by the squads during the night-time partying in the 11 halls around Lerwick which act as party venues – 47 squads were in this year’s event and their routines are likely to be more than recognisable to the squads in 1920, all featuring a mix of music and singing, dance and the lampooning of local and national figures and events, with each taking months to plan, write and rehearse. It was a hugely enjoyable night, not least in the sights of men quite clearly enjoying the liberation of wearing a dress and in the oddball costumes in which some spent large parts of their night. I spent my night at the Mareel arts centre, courtesy of tickets obtained by my nephew, Igor – and, despite the lack of progress on women’s participation, there were other positive signs compared to my last Up Helly A’, back in 2013:

– no act used blackface this year

– one squad (23: ‘Slantiģirt does Oz’) did a thoughtful routine based on the Wizard of Oz and included two men clad in rainbow suits.

Top of the pile for me was Squad 42, whose ‘Swine Lake’ – men in pink tutus and lycra and wearing pig masks dancing to Swan Lake – was a thing of style and no little grace. Honourable mentions, among others, also to Squad 38 (‘London Calling’); Squad 33 (‘Still Game’ and including a spot-on Slosh to ‘Beautiful Sunday’, of course); Squad 32 (‘Post Office Redirection’); Squad 43 (‘Sister Act’); and Squad 30 (‘Man’s Event in Lerwick’).

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8.20am and the scene at bedtime.

I went on to spend part of Brexit Day itself at a town hall commemoration in respect of Holocaust Memorial Day, held over from the Monday perhaps as a result of the preparations within the Town Hall for Up Helly A’. The call of HMD to ‘Stand Together’ being made on that day was certainly not lost on the Bulgarians and the Poles present at the event.

Other links can also be made: not only does Up Helly A’ symbolise Shetlanders’ Norse heritage, but the drama of the burning of the boat has symbolic relevance, too. In some Up Helly A’s, the burning galley is launched into the sea, in reference to the suggestion that the galleys of deceased Norse warriors were turned into funeral pyres and put to sea – but not in Lerwick, where the Up Helly A’ burning takes place in a small public park. Here, the symbolism of boat burning, leaving people unable to get home but, instead, having thus exercised the choice to stay, is one that speaks firstly to the settled immigrant that is present in most of us Brits but also in the reference of Up Helly A’ Day to a community coming together to celebrate those same traditions of migration.