Saturday, December 31, 2005

Let Us Douse The Old Year With Ajax And Attack 2006 With Vim. Let Us Live As If It Is Always Our Turn To Wash The Stairs

Traditionally, Hogmanay is a day of reflection. This year, before I could slip into gloomy rumination about the tea-stains on the grouting, I found myself pondering the nature of the New Year.
It has changed in recent years, and not for the better. Until about 20 years ago, New Year's Eve was the traditional Scottish festival. It outshone Christmas, and provided an evening which was rich with wonder.
In my childhood, the end of December smelled strongly of bleach, as my mother, Mrs Elder (or Ma'am) spent days scrubbing the house in a manner that was almost superstitious. She never articulated her fears, but, from the ferocity of her mopping and brushing, I understood that our home might at any time be subjected to an inspection by a higher power.
Every surface was dusted, buffed and waxed. The windows were washed inside and out. The oven was scoured, the toilet perfumed, and fresh pine cones stacked in the vestibule by the Wellington boots. The air, already loaded with a sharp cocktail of Vim and Ajax, was sprayed into submission with Glade and Vapona.
The dusting extended to places where no-one need ever look. Mrs Elder's feathery stick found its way down the back of the cooker, beneath the twin-tub, and into the bunker, where the coal was hosed clean and polished into rough, knobbly diamonds.
The ornaments - the clog-shaped sailing boat (a gift from Holland), the wild boar's head (a hunting trophy from mother's days as an elephant farmer in South Africa), the plastic back-scratcher (a sentimental souvenir of a wet fortnight in Filey) - were shampooed and blow-dried. The clock, with its Westminster chimes, and its habit of striking 13 times on the quarter hour, was dismantled, oiled, and reassembled in a way that ensured it ran three minutes fast every hour.
The advantage of this, according to Mrs Elder, was that we were early for everything, even when we were late. Indeed, it was only after Mrs Elder was promoted to glory that I discovered the clock's secret: it was made to run fast by the insertion of a rubber sycamore leaf under its right foot. Without the leaf, the clock kept perfect time, though it sometimes chimed for hours and days without a break.
Even with the chimes removed, the internal workings clanked and grumbled like an East German washing machine, so I learned to live off-kilter, secure in the knowledge that, like the clock at the North British Hotel, I was three minutes ahead of my time.
Looking back, I find myself wondering about Mrs Elder's obsessive pursuit of cleanliness. Visitors to our house were rare, but rarest on Hogmanay, when they were, I suspect, discouraged by the black-out curtains and the 38 pints of full-cream milk on the doorstep, specially ordered to give the impression that we had died, and need not be bothered at such a festive time.
Invariably, on the morning of the 1st of January, my father, Mr Elder, was our first foot. He would stand on the frosted bristles of the lawn and declare himself scunnered with everything, before retiring to a breakfast of Alka Seltzer. He was permitted to drink on Hogmanay, on the understanding he would be packed off to bed at the first signs of amorous or sentimental behaviour. From my hiding place beneath the stairs, I could time the moment of his lost inhibitions to 1:23am.
Fortunately, Mrs Elder was three minutes ahead of him, and was ready to shoo him, fully-clothed, into custody in the spare room before anything untoward could happen.
Today, of course, Hogmanay has lost its allure. Instead of cleaning their houses, people shop for alcopops. Where once they took an inventory of their personal affairs, they now stock their refrigerators with pizza slices and pre-cooked chipolatas. Hogmanay has become a time of immoderate celebration: of bad music and damp fireworks and misplaced kisses. The other night, I had the misfortune to find myself in Edinburgh's Old Town after midnight. On turning into the High Street from a darkened close, I collided with six Vikings, in full regalia, with (historically inaccurate) horned helmets, skirts, swords, and shields. I was not hallucinating. I had drunk only Lem-Sip.
But, then, none of this enforced jollity is obligatory. So, this year, as last, I will wash the kitchen floor and settle down with Miss Jackie Bird on the television and a glass of egg-nog in my hand. I will hope for better times, while preparing for more of the same.
Happy new year, and may the bells not toll for you in 2006.

3 comments:

Jackson D'Catur said...

Edinburgh's citizenry - like all of Scotland's - are best avoided at Hogmanay. The Scotch national character is a house built on weak foundations and as a race they are prone to seasonal fits of maudlin sentimentality interspersed by short eruptions of brutality. Many's a Hogmanay in Edinburgh I have garnered a score of kisses and a almost as many stitches from being bottled by passersby who mistook my shyness at not singing along to Auld Lang Syne at a slight on the entire country

sperrman said...

ah mr. Elder how true these comments are , possibly you have to be of a certain age to remember the maniacal cleanning spree embarked upon at that time of year when the linolium was washed and old newspaper put down, and ginger wine essence purchased from the co-op was decanted into various bottles, ah how that would put a glow in your small frame acomanied by a finger of shortbread before you were dispatched to bed.
awra best

Anonymous said...

As an ex-Peeblean long since sadly transported to Orstralyia, and recent convert to your Blog, may I wish you all the best for 2006 Kirk Elder, and keep stickin' in the boot. Although the last Scottish politician I knew anything about was Wendy Wood, I recognise many of the Scottish Pollies you write about, if not by name, then by their endearingly familiar witless behaviour, which, disturbingly, I find to be something of a comfort in this ever changing world.

I've always thought that the reason the Scots celebrate the New year with such grim ferocity is because of a dogged, if usually doomed hope that "surely next year has tae be better than this yin!' This is especially true for the lucklesss denizens of Edinburry.