Sunday, January 30, 2011

Entrance Of The Haggis

The other evening I dined next to a jolly lady who told me that this year’s Christmas present from her husband had been two live ducks.

He’d wrapped them up in a big box with a bow, and she was absolutely delighted when they burst out of the wrapping paper and quacked around the sitting room, waddling through the piles of presents. She said the terrible mess they made on the carpet added to the Christmas atmosphere. When they started attacking the tinsel on the tree, she scooped them up and put them in the bath, where they lived happily for a week until the husband had chipped off enough ice in the garden to build them a pond.

I think this sort of British eccentricity should be lauded. During the awful winter, the long haul to the January pay cheque and the tax return deadline (midnight on Monday, in case you’d forgotten), any kind of levity is to be welcomed. That’s why Jo and I were delighted to receive the invitation to our local Burns Night supper – which is where we met duck lady and her equally delightful husband. He organises the local sheep racing.

“So what exactly are we celebrating?” asked Jo, puzzled by the mixture of tweeds and tartan. I think she regretted wearing her denim miniskirt. Being American, she had already confused the occasion with Guy Fawkes night – I guess it was the Burns in the title that made her assume it was something to do with bonfires. I told her it was to honour a Scottish poet called Rabbie – and, no, he wasn’t Jewish.

“But we’re in England,” she pointed out. “Why are we celebrating some deceased Scot whose poetry nobody can even understand?”

I took a deep breath. There was no better response than the truth: in these ghastly, straightened, freezing times we seize any excuse for a party. Just then the haggis arrived, and was ceremoniously piped, addressed and knifed to death. “You guys are all quite mad”, she said, laughing at the absurdity.

Garnished with neeps and tatties, the haggis reached our table. “This reminds me of something”, she said, warily sniffing at the grey mound on her plate. “Don’t even think about it”, I cautioned. “Just pour the whisky on top and think of hamburgers”. Finally she leant over and whispered: “I’ve got it. You know that tinned dog food we give Truffle and Mabel when they’ve been ill?” My wife has a wonderful sense of smell.

The ceilidh was a riot. We tried The Gay Gordons ("Gordon was Rabbi Burns’ effeminate brother", I lied), The Dashing White Sergeant ("Gordon’s special friend") and Strip The Willow ("an ancient fertility dance, often performed naked"). Jo knew I was winding her up, but she took it all in good spirit: once we’d overcome our initial reserve, we were swirling along with the rest of them.

There are three types of dancer: the expert, the petrified novice, and the haven’t-a-clue-but-let’s-go-for-it-anyway. The first group smile confidently as they swish from partner to partner; the beginners have brows creased with concentration and mouth the caller’s instructions as they desperately try to master the pattern before the music stops; and then there are the flying villagers: real weapons of mass destruction in a tiny hall. While duck lady hurled herself like a dervish round the dance floor, Jo and I did a stately promenade: “back-two-three-four, twirl-two – oops, no – under the arch. Sorry everyone!” We were truly terrible. But it was also the most glorious fun.

There were toasts to the Queen and speeches to the guests. A man in a bow tie told a very long joke about a parrot in a brothel. Or was it a duck? Who knows? By then we’d all had far too many drams to care.

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