SOBERING experiences prompt deep reflection.
Like what’s it like to genuinely fear for the life of your child? How terrifying is it to face an implacable danger while rendered utterly powerless? Or who wants to listen to 60s pop music classics while facing a clear and present existential threat?
Sorry if number three sounds terribly flippant. But the truth is I can actually answer all of these questions.
Indeed, that’s why I wasn’t remotely surprised to read in today’s Scotsman that the appalling crush on The Mound during Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Street party is to be the subject of an in-depth safety review.
Forgive what may sound like dramatic effect, but I was there – and I’ve never been more terrified in my life. In a single year past I came within moments of drowning and was knocked over by a hit and run driver. Both those events gave me pause for serious reflection. Neither came close to shaking me as profoundly as my New Year’s Eve experience on an ordinary city street that I’ve walked countless times.
For those not already au fait with what happened, let me set the scene. Hot Dub Time Machine was one of the hottest street attractions at Edinburgh’s legendary street party to usher out 2014. It was set up at the top of the Mound, a relatively steep, though fairly wide throroughfare hemmed in on both sides by impressive and imposing iron railings.
HDTM is a DJ-led romp through the history of popular music. It involves flashing visuals on big screens that count through the years from 1950 upwards, while blaring out medleys of the catchiest and most memorable tunes from each year. In short it is an absolute blast and as a result is hugely popular.
Sober and well-wrapped up, shortly before 9pm on December 31 I was with my partner and daughter and another family of close friends. Eight-strong, we were on the Royal Mile, headed for the foot of The Mound, where we were looking forward to joining the party in Princes Street Gardens.
At that point we were pretty chuffed that our route was due to take us past HDTM because we wanted to soak it up and experience the hype for ourselves. We weren’t disappointed. As we reached the fringes of the crowd it was clear the audience – of all ages – were loving it; exuberant, and good-humoured while dancing and singing along.
However, it was clear the crowd was swelling and it looked increasingly unlikely that there would be any quick way to push through to reach the foot of The Mound. Making mental calculations, we figured that it was probably going to take at least 10 minutes longer than we expected to worm through the crowd.
Undaunted, we formed up in to a snaking human chain and set off, confident that patience and politeness would see us through slowly but surely. At first, that was the case; so much so that the 17-year-old son of our family friends was still smiling and holding aloft his phone to take photos of the scene.
Within minutes the situation had changed. No warning. No chance to take evasive action. No easy way to grasp how it’s possible for such an ugly transformation to manifest within a heartbeat. Just a horrifying realisation that, out of nowhere, life as you know it is suddenly dependent on arbitrary factors upon which you have absolutely no influence.
Without any knowledge of crowd control or the psychology of the mob, I don’t know what went wrong, or why. I simply know that – for whatever reason – there were too many people in too small a space.
Back to those questions – how terrifying is it to face an implacable danger while rendered utterly powerless?
On The Mound the smothering sense of imminent disaster felt like being under the single-minded leer of highly proficient predator – terrifying and inescapable in equal measure.
The pressure was more than a just a physical force, it was a constricting presence heavy in the air itself, which I felt in my bones, my eyeballs and my inner ear. Time slowed. The ordinary stuff of every day life – a jostle, a stray elbow, a foot stepping on mine – was amplified to become possible triggers of catstrophe.
I couldn’t see my feet. Worse, I knew that the ground was sloped, slippy and at times I was tripping over the kerb, or stray bottles, or – as my legs were forced closer and closer together – even over my own feet.
To have stumbled and fallen at that point would have been fatal, of that I am certain. The hollow-eyed panic in the faces of those around me told me that they knew it too. That was when I realised the same blanched and wild-eyed expression was on my own face.
So what does it feel like to genuinely fear for the life of your child?
I clung to my daughter with a ferocity which any parent will understand.The truth is that the overwhelming emotion was abject hopelessness. I was powerless and totally without influence on the situation. I would have screamed, ranted or wept (it makes my eyes prick thinking about it now), but for the certain knowledge that would only make a dangerous situation worse.
It feels almost shameful to have been so unmanned. But that kind of fear isn’t about being male. Such an experience strips you of other parts of the cloak of humanity we all wear. It’s difficult to admit that, in my desperate attempt to keep my child upright and safe I totally abandoned my partner, while that other family, dear though they are to me, were totally forgotten.
That was 20 minutes which will haunt me for ever. I have no ability to explain how parents cope when their children face a grinding and long term threat from inexplicably transmitted illness or cursed genetics.
That third and final queston – who wants to listen to 60s pop music classics while facing a clear and present existential threat? – may have sounded like a poor attempt at humour.
The truth is that unfolding, terror-laden calamity can creep up on us, while those just a few feet away remain totally oblivous. It felt unnervingly surreal on two fronts.
First was to realise that, no matter how full-blooded and vibrant it is, life is a gossamer contrivance in the face of a danger which has no malign intent and no purpose, so therefore can’t be rationalised or reasoned with.
Second was the revelation that the spectre of tragedy walks hand-in-hand with almost laughable inanity. At points hundreds of ordinary people were caught in that horrifying squeeze, while yards away the unwitting DJ was spouting meaningless-yet-cheerful drivel.
How sad it would have been if that upbeat soundtrack had overlaid a tragedy – and I believe that came terribly close.
Finally, another lesson was just how durable we are. When the danger cleared, life very quicky returned to near normality. Practicality dictates that we write off near misses, shrug into our relief and carry on as before.
While the events were put to the back of or minds, they weren’t forgotten entirely. Nor could they be when we woke up the following morning to the news that 36 people had been crushed to death in Shanghai.
Sobering thoughts, indeed.