Fresh in from far out - Galloway

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Acting out a community drama

For the usual set of reasons, we were late arriving at the very last lantern-making workshop before the Millennium Lantern Procession through the streets of Dumfries the following day. The theme of the event was "Flight" and the centre was full of winged creatures - butterflies, fruit flies, swans and a winged, fire-breathing dragon. "A fish," I said. "We want to make a flying fish." Given that we had an hour to pull it off, a fish seemed the most straightforward construction.

Jo, one of the on-hand experts, showed us how to form and secure our willow skeleton, then we all joined in, gluing and slapping on the tissue paper. With two minutes to go on the clock, our finished fish glowed in the light - four-feet long, with a huge fin and an elegant sweep of a tail, an open square on its back for access to the candle and two bamboo poles to hold it up. We left it to dry overnight, and in the streets we shouted in wonder: "We made a fish! We made a fish!"

Next day, I carried it home through the streets, needlessly nervous of people's reactions. "That a fish?" "What a great fish!" "Hey, mister, like your fish!" Soon I was looking up and waving a fin back at passing cars. Then as night fell, our fish joined the mass of other lanterns - products of the weekend and after-school workshops - on the banks of the Nith. Candles were lit from long tapers for the first, wide-eyed time.

"This is the greatest fun," commented my son, bearer of the front end of our fish, as we dipped into the dark street that eventually leads past Burns's House. From there, we looked back and saw the lights snaking through the town A pipe band had led us off, but now we moved to a deep drumming. Not slavishly though; the procession was a social event in which people lapped backwards and forwards, catching up in all possible ways. "Have you seen Kelvin?" our friend Nick asked about his son. "He's attached to a dog."

We had missed out on the town's last big lantern event, which was held in honour of the Burns bicentenary. Then we were only spectators, noticing the joy on all the kids' faces as they held their pyramidal lanterns before them; astonished by the poetry of a glowing Tam O'Shanter and Meg being chased over Devorgilla Bridge. That procession had ended with a profile of Burns coming alight on the wall of the Midsteeple in the town centre, and this procession would end equally spectacularly and even more poetically.

The lantern procession is just one of a whole range of events being organised by Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association under the umbrella title, "Rites of Passage". In autumn, Winter and Fire Events culminated in a Guisers' Masked Family Ceilidh Dance and the drama of a fire sculpture in the grounds of the Crichton hospital. The accompanying music, commissioned from the Gamelan Percussion Band, was both resonant and ambiguous: Were we watching some ancient elemental rite? Or something from a simpler future?

There was a similar feeling to the "happening" at this end of this January procession. The bandstand in the Dock Park had been transformed into a lantern-like shadow theatre, where we watched a caterpillar crawl on to a leaf and turn itself into a cocoon and then into a butterfly. The shadowy forms of many others joined it until, with the beat of the Gamelan Band becoming more insistent, the curtains fell and they were moving above our heads, joined by a giant butterfly on stilts.

Texas on the esplanade, this is definitely not; yet there is something heartening about a huge range of ordinary people taking time to enjoy something so different - so poetic, so magical and, again in that slightly askew way, ambiguous: ancient or oriental? As director of the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association, Jenny Wilson is the imaginative and dynamic centre of the team that co-ordinates the "Rites of Passage" programme. It is one of her few complaints that nowhere in our national papers is there coverage of such events; most of which by their nature take place in small communities beyond the central belt.

It is right that we should find ways of encouraging, applauding and responding to individual talent in our culture; but if there are also ways in which a community can be brought together to enact its own dramas, then it is a pity that no critical attention is brought to bear on them, whether they are slip-shod and badly thought out or, as the "Rites of Passage", meticulously organised and poetically realised.