Deborah Orr: Don't let these grumpy spoilsports ruin our ancient rituals of Hallowe'en

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Fired by my memories of the excitement of being out on a pitch-black evening, in a street teeming with outlandishly dressed children reclaiming the night, and subject to a whirlwind of gifts and good wishes, I'm always happy to assist my children in the continuation of the old Scottish tradition of Hallowe'en guising. There are a few other souls in our neighbourhood who relish this fabulous and ancient ritual, so we manage between us to make it special for the children who take part.

I do understand that the tradition had fallen into abeyance in England, but it is not true to say that the festival is an American import. It's widely acknowledged, for example, that in her crime novels Agatha Christie portrayed a traditional England of village fetes and old-fashioned values. So I think it is safe to say that in her book Hallowe'en Party, Christie's descriptions of a clutch of the elaborate English parlour games that had evolved to mark the night were not nicked from the sinister folder of a slick Yankee marketing man.

Still, it has to be admitted that participating households are thin on the ground, while expressions of hostility to the mummery are legion. How Britons love to complain about lack of community spirit, and poor behaviour among neglected children. How they hate setting aside just one evening a year to foster some of the former, and redress some of the latter, by investing a tiny bit of time and money in interaction with the local minors.

Much sadder than the graceless and petty faux-complaints about US cultural imperialism are the querulous ones about the perils of opening one's door to the feral gangs of young people today. It's widely understood that fear of crime is much greater than actual crime, and Hallowe'en bears this out.

We live smack in a square mile that is one of the most densely blighted with gun crime in Britain. Yet none of this mayhem is apparent on the streets at Hallowe'en, and neither is it apparent when one opens one's own doors in turn to unfamiliar young faces. On the contrary, the opposite lesson is learned.

Broadly, the largely white middle-class guisers turn up in lavish costumes and full make-up, with their mothers or fathers at the front gate. Again, in generalisation, what one presumes must be "the local hoodies" come sporting little more than a mask and carrier, accompanied, if by anyone at all, by an older sibling.

The most dastardly crime any of these kids ever commit is to chance it occasionally by returning to a house for more sweets. This year, the con artist in question was berated by his big brother: "See! I told you! I told you! Sorry missus ..." What a nice big brother, slogging around so many doors shut tight against him to make his sibling's night. Who exactly is being antisocial here?

Of course some people are especially vulnerable. If you are alone, or elderly, or neurotic, or if you have had bad experiences before, then you have every right to bow out of the ritual. But if you are able-bodied and in company, then protect the truly frail by buying fun-size Mars bars, sitting a candle on the doorstep, then throwing open the door and repeating "Love your costume" a dozen or so times. This should not seem like a task too odious to mark of the start of winter.

Finally, there is much grumbling about how those who want to mark Hallowe'en should organise their own parties and leave the rest in peace. The point of the evening is to come together, defying the forces of superstition and fear, taking to the streets, and laughing at the bogeyman. It's a shame that so few are prepared to do so, because that refusal helps in turn to give the bogeyman – at this time in history, the feral child – his desire and his power to frighten us.

* It is commonplace to talk about media witch-hunts, but there is little reflection on how apposite the metaphor is. Children are gripped by the story of how in the old days a woman behaving weirdly would be denounced as a witch and tossed in the village pond. Last Wednesday, Heather Mills could be seen once more flailing around in the media pond, refusing as usual to sink with dignity out of sight. If it's not her, then it's some other messed-up gal. There's a pun to be made here about media and evil, but it's just too excruciating to be followed through.

Join the wedding dance

Strenuous attempts to drum up hype around the filming of the Sex and the City movie have been largely counterproductive, as the release of pictures of Sarah Jessica Parker in her Vivienne Westwood meringue dress make her look rather too much like New York's answer to Miss Havisham.

Thank God, then, for Michael Clark, the genius of a ballet choreographer, who this week gave the premiere of his version of Stravinsky's story of a Russian peasant wedding, Les Noces, at the Barbican in London. The bridal wear in Clark's bitterly beautiful piece was cable-knitted and penis-shaped, even more obviously restrictive and ridiculous than Ms Parker's gown, yet quite a lot more stylish and pertinent.

The outfit, as well as communicating the repression and ownership involved in the transaction of marrying off a powerless young woman, also contained the only really straightforward nod to Clark's former punky "waywardness". His Les Noces, left, was restrained, lovely, charged with fear and drenched with acceptance. It was also the first of the dances that the former Royal Ballet wunderkind has choreographed without even a teensy part for himself. Happily, the piece was perfect without him.

When the police panic we are all in danger

The above-mentioned lively square mile, as well has having played host over recent years to much scary gun-toting, has also been the venue for an attempted terrorist bombing, and the site of the ensuing killing of Jean Charles de Menezes.

I am not without sympathy for the police, and do not pretend I don't understand the human pressures that shaped the part they played in that ignominious chain of events. I am not an hysterical person, but I am not ashamed to admit that I could hardly contain my desire that day to forbid my boys to play alone in the garden, for fear that the terrorist-at-large might spring from the shadows, desperate for a hostage. That, after all, is what terror is designed to do to us. But when terror and its chaos seep as far as the operations control room at Scotland Yard, suffusing the police force itself with panic and desperation, and prompting the deliberate slaughter of a young commuter, then terror has prevailed.

It is not permissible for the operational fabric of the Metropolitan Police to be vulnerable to terror, and for mistakes to be pushed aside because of the extraordinary circumstances it exists to foster. Sir Ian Blair appears not to understand that the procedure he commands should protect his own ranks from their natural susceptibility to terror, perhaps above all else. He instead seems eager to embrace terror as a catch-all excuse when things go wrong.

Now, when the force requests, as it does, that the law must be changed in order to hold people for longer and longer periods without trial, we cannot know whether this plea is prompted by clinical logic or by institutional fear of terror. If the police really believe that when a man is shot dead so callously, as the result of so many mistakes, then it is merely unfortunate, then they must also believe that any number of terrible injustices can be committed in the name of fighting terror, because fear of terror trumps all. This is not what you'd call a plea from a place of security and wisdom, but from a place of insecurity and its complacent acceptance.

Comments