By the time this is read, the Christmas and New Year hype in Britain would be almost over and with that, one needs to thank Heaven for life’s small mercies.
While Brits make much fun of the complete lockdown in Muslim countries on the occasion of the two Eids, Britain is really not much better from Christmas Eve, on 24th December, till it gets back to life after the New Year, somewhere around 3rd or 4th of January. Those 10 days are a complete write-off. Travel during this period is fraught with unexpected, unpleasant surprises, medical services are more or less non-existent, so if you happen to have a medical emergency during this period your only hope is in prayer, most businesses close down and the number of drunks lolling around in the streets records a dramatic rise. None of it is very pleasant except for kids and if you happen to have the ill fortune of being long past your 12th birthday, the entire experience can be very trying. And if you happen to be a journalist looking for an interesting copy around this time, you have the mother and father of a problem on your hands because there is simply nothing happening.
Yet, the New Year celebrations must and shall go ahead in what is now fast becoming a statement of competitive pride among the leading capitals of the world. Every New Year, as soon as the dreaded hour approaches, television channels here can be seen concentrating solely on the fireworks displays as they take place in various big cities starting from east to west. As New Year dawns first on the eastern cities, the coverage of the display of fireworks, starts usually with Auckland in New Zealand, followed by Sydney, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and then the western cities culminating with the display in New York. Even in little Swanley, which is my town, the explosion of fireworks at midnight, mainly by ruffians, makes one feel as if the country is under attack by some extra-terrestrial power.
The amount spent in these displays is staggering; a couple of years ago it is said to have topped two million pounds in London, half a million of which was the tax-payers’ money which had to be provided when one of the sponsors decided to quit. But even that was comfortably outstripped by the three and a half million plus reported to have been spent by Dubai. Not everybody is amused by this extravagance at a time when essential public services are being closed down due to lack of funds. Even in Swanley, we had to live for almost a year with our street lights being switched off at midnight which, especially in winter, would plunge the entire town in complete darkness making one wonder whether the local council was being sponsored by the Burglar’s Association. Jokes aside, this did lead to a sizable increase in the incidence of crime and it was only when the citizen’s expressed their dissatisfaction with a public petition that we got our street lights back on again.
The issue highlighted another very British idiosyncracy, which is an almost unreasonable concern over the ‘environment’. Latching on to this, the council had said that its decision to cut off street lighting at midnight was due to ‘environmental’ concerns, with finance not being mentioned at all as that would have got much less sympathy. In the event, many people refused to sign the public petition because they said they ‘cared for the environment’. You would have to have the IQ of a grasshopper to believe that switching street lights off in a town the size of Swanley, with a population of just over 20,000, would make a difference to the environment while cities like Mumbai and Kolkata were hammering the environment with a savagery even worse than the treatment meted out to Yasir Shah by the Aussie Mitchell Starc. But believe it or not, there were plenty of them and in the end what won the day for the petitioners, yours truly included, was the police input which confirmed the rise in crime since this measure was adopted. But in the years that we were consigned to near darkness – and winters in the northern hemisphere can be very dark indeed – it was odd to see huge firework displays being organised by local government institutions up and down the land, mostly at public expense, while when you peeped outside the window the world was shrouded in complete blackness.
The cities, we are told, compete with each other to show off their importance. From what point of view a particular country would be considered ‘more important’ than another on the strength of its New Year’s firework display is not easy to comprehend. Perhaps in the end it is a display of vanity to show just how rich we are when more meaningful indicators do not point that way. •