Lerwick, Up Helly Aa

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January 27th 2016
Published: January 31st 2016
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Why is it, that when heading off on a very long journey, on a train and a plane and then another plane, I eat all the food that I have packed whilst sitting on the platform of Sheffield station, before I leave my home town, and this being a time before I normally wake?

There's something about the journey that makes me prepare then break down all preparation within the hour of leaving - all edible things are eaten, a book is opened and read, tickets are checked again and again when the departure times are already known and the time is watched during the whole journey. It is an early start of 3am to give the time to travel from Yorkshire to the UK's outer most Northerly islands. The 'express' train travels through the pitch dark night through sleeping villages and valleys to arrive at Manchester airport as if it is an everyday occurance. In the airport, I lose myself in a windowless cocoon of cafes, bars, duty free shops and people. This place could be anywhere. Traveling alone makes you alert to time and location. It's the order of things.

The flight from Manchester to Glasgow leaves an hour late. It takes off sharply and almost immediately the plan starts to preparing for a landing. I'm optimistic knowing that this type of flying has never been easy for me. And, even with full optimism in tact, the landing is through thick cloud and heavy rain and in parallel, the dropping and rising of the plane leaves my stomach in the opposite direction, truth dawns that I want to puke but manage not to. On impact of landing, I'm grateful to find my land feet, knowing that it is only half an hour until take off for the second flight. Thankfully, that flight is also delayed and my stomach settles enough. The second flight is a little longer - long enough for a cup of tea in a plastic container and a biscuit which I stash for later. I spend the entire flight with my eyes closed waiting for the impending landing which doesn't disappoint, coming in a sharp drop with a severe sideways turn to land quickly accompanied by a silent passenger freight. When the door opens, a severe gale greets us and I put my feet on solid tarmac and am thankful.

The house that I have been invited to stay in but know absolutely nothing about, is on a crossroads of 2 main streets. It was built by a Sea Captain, was once a hotel and faces out to the harbour but I didn't know that until told later. The side entrance door opens in to a hallway with doors on either side, then turns sharply right to bend back on itself, revealing beautifully painted walls and clear varnished stairs that rise three floors.

The perfect choice of colour on the walls shifts by one shade in the carefully painted sides of each stair that mirrors the curve of the smooth mahogany banister rail and gives the mansion itself the immediate first impression of tasteful, austere grandeur. On each of the two half landings, on the street-side of the house, is a large arched window, each with some parts retaining the original decorative yellow panes of glass, some panes are replaced with clear or bubbled glass. Large plants grace the deep window sills. As I climb past the first floor, where the landing turns sharply left back towards the front of the house again, we continue to climb to the second half landing with its second glazed arched window with its perfectly graceful yellow glass border, on to the top floor. The house is on three floors with the kitchen and sitting room at the top.

It's a very special house, which I note on the journey upwards, littered in the numerous halls and landings with a large partly opened artist's easel, opened and closed books, knitting wools, basket weaving canes and baskets, and tailor's dummy with a partly finished dress pinned to it, wooden package crates, plastic boxes with patterns, book shelves heaving with books, papers and photographs, sketch books and everywhere all manner of creativity either finished or not and I come to sense and quickly recongnise that this is only the tip of what goes on here as I have not yet seen inside any of the rooms.

The room that I am staying in is on the top floor. It nestles between an old shuttered sash-window that faces the side street and the corridor leading to the sitting room which faces the sea. I'm already in love with the fabric of this house and know instantly, that the woman who kindly invited me to stay, without knowing anything about me - someone I met for only a snatch of time last September and knew nothing about, is kind, generous of spirit, creative, open and free spirited. She took a risk taking me in. In my room, she introduces me to the clothes rail where she has started to hang a collection of vintage shetland knitwear for me to look at and feel - the rest of which is on the bed and floor. I can hardly breath for want of not wanting to break this whole thing.

I'm introduced to the house-cat called Jack, whom I call JackJack and we instantly become friends. She (Jack) is nestled on a cushion by the radiator in the sitting room that faces the sea which can be viewed through a large triple windowed bay that overhangs the street three floors below. The interior of the room is an extension of the stairs and landings - covered with art, drawings, screen prints, conceptual light boxes, unfinished knitting, knitted berets, more books, fabrics and all manner of things.

If I never step out into the street again, I could live happily in this place.

The reason that I returned to Shetland was for the Up Helly Aa festival. A festival celebrated by all in Lerwick and most in Shetland. It's difficult to explain if you know nothing of the festival or the island or it's seasons. In my own lay terms, I can explain that on the last Tuesday of January, every year, a wooden galley ship that has been carefully made by a team of local craftsmen over the previous year, is pulled through the town, overseen by a Jarl ( a man who has been on the Up Helly Aa committee for over 15 years) and a squad. The Jarl and squad are all dressed as Vikings and have, during the year, made their own costumes with leather, copper, metals, furs and chains. As well as the Jarl and his squad, almost 1,000 other men from the town and island dress up in disguises and carry torches lit with fire so that, after the galley has been pulled through the town, with the Jarl and younger vikings of the island on board, accompanied by 1,000 fire lit torch bearing, chanting singing men, dresses as vikings and all manner of disguises, it is pulled into an open safe green space and set alight by every torch carried in the festival. The lighting of the torches at the beginning of the ceremony is like a furnace all around. It is very moving to see the galley set off and all the men in double rows on either side of the street accompanying it followed by half the towns folk meandering through the streets.

These are the things I learned. The Jarl squad costumes are detailed and proud pieces of craftsmanship worn proudly by every man there. The galley has a template that is followed to the last detail every year and has been for 60 years. There is also a Peerie galley for the boys groups. Everyone is in high spirits. When the 1,000 fire torches are lit, it is a very powerful sight and sound that you feel in your chest like a furnace roaring and when the chanting begins, you can really feel how it must have been to be invaded by Vikings - frightening. It's a mans festival. The men are men. They, shout, joke, swear and chant and it's a good place to be around - they're proud of this festival. When the 1,000 torch bearers (which are groups of other squads) file by the crowds, sparks fly from the torches - these are called spunks. I heard more than once, 'the spunks are flying.' and I can see exactly why they're called this. When the galley is ready to be burned, there are 3 cheers for the galley makers, the torch makers, the band and all the squads - then every man there sings and throws their torches into the galley and it roars into an enormous fire. After the fire, there are parties all around Lerwick in the many halls. You need to be invited to these parties but pay for the pleasure. Each hall is visited by the guisers and squads who perform songs and dances to everyone there and in between these performances, there is a band playing and dancing. This goes on all night until each squad (43 teams this year) has been to each hall (7, i think) and performed a song and dance routine - it finishes about 8am the next morning.

We were invited to the Bells Brae hall party. Something quite lovely happened. A couple of the squads had been in and done their performances then one came with the team dressed as builders working on the roads - I didn't take much notice but afterwards, one of the guys came and asked me to dance the jig with him and wouldn't take no for an answer - even though I've never danced a jig in my life. He was very funny and positioned us as couple number 4 in a group of 8 in a long long line of other groups of 8 dancers. He did this so that I could see the first 3 couples go before us and get an idea of how it was all going to work - NO such chance. So, he pushed and pulled me into position, pointing where i should go next and take a turn with another in the group. He made stupid faces to make me laugh and caught hold of me, spinning me around and around. I understood it part way through our last turn and he knew it. All I know is his name is Robin, he'll have danced with a lady in every hall throughout the whole night and done the same gestures to make them feel relaxed and have fun.

So, I didn't get me a viking but i did get me a Scottish jig with a man dressed as a builder, who didn't take no for an answer and I really enjoyed it.

And this place, once again, embeds itself within me.

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2nd February 2016

I like the UK. No, I should say the truth: I love the UK. I have been there only once but I did not reach the furthest north. That is on my list. I love the pictures of that remote loneliness. Lovely places. I wish God takes me there sometime. Hugs from Argentina.

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