London's New Year's Day Parade holds a special place in the hearts of Londoners and visitors alike. Every year they turn out half a million strong on the streets of the West End to watch and cheer the pageant as it goes by. For three and half hours Westminster is alive with music and spectacle, whatever the weather, as part of the event known affectionately by Londoners as LNYDP. A massive global TV audience tunes in to enjoy the cavalcade of marching bands, cheerleaders and inflatables as they pass in front of some of the most iconic landmarks in the world, just as they have for the last 30 years. At New Year in London there is nothing to compare. What do you mean you've never heard of it, let alone been?
Perhaps your New Year involves getting incredibly drunk, watching the London Eye fireworks on whatever screen you have available and waking with a throbbing hangover long past breakfast time. London's New Year's Day Parade is not for you. Instead a more wholesome audience is targeted - those who had a small drink at home, those who went to bed early, families with children and tourists who don't want to stay in their hotel room a minute longer than they have to. If you can get to the West End by noon, and have a thing for tubas and pompoms, you are target audience.
The parade starts at Green Park station, winds its way down Piccadilly and Pall Mall to Trafalgar Square, then heads down Whitehall towards Parliament Square. It used to run in the opposite direction, but American TV networks thought things'd look prettier with Big Ben in the background, so in 2010 it was switched the other way. Spectators line the entire two mile route, so if you don't come early you may not see much. Children are at a particular disadvantage unless hauled up onto someone's shoulders. A dozen grandstands are provided along the route for those who want a privileged view, but seats cost anywhere from £37.50 to £125, so you need to be either very keen or loaded to enjoy that option.
Marching bands form an incredibly high proportion of what files past. What's more they're not local, all twenty have been imported from across the Atlantic, because America takes this event very seriously indeed. Musicians from high schools across the States fly specially to London for their chance to walk the streets with jetlag, play covers of Elvis Presley songs and wear costumes no UK brass band would be seen dead in. Each set of students is kitted out in a brightly coloured uniform, more pseudo-European than US military, as if participating in some Disney recreation of the Nutcracker Suite. But it's the hats and helmets which stick in the memory, many topped off with bogbrush plumage, and one can only marvel at the collective pride with which each confection is worn.
Inbetween the marching bands comes the other stuff. Cheerleaders are numerous, though not as numerous as some might like, and this year mighty relieved that the weather's not as wintry as it could be. Others go by banging drums, or leading miniature horses, or performing tricks on the backs of motorbikes, or wielding Chinese dragons, or sat on the backs of tiny steam engines. You might even have spotted Eddie the Eagle somewhere in this year's parade, inserted in an attempt to generate column inches in the national media. Approximately half of London's boroughs send a float, almost exclusively from the outer suburbs, this year all dressed up to celebrate their favourite musicals. The parade's a curious hybrid of homespun and hype, refreshingly uncommercial but jarringly irrelevant to the streets it's passing through.
One downside to spectating is that the VIPs sitting in the grandstands get the best view. Every component of the parade pauses in front to perform their particular showpiece, whereas those watching for free elsewhere often only see a swift marchpast. There again, the various grandstands do get to suffer relentless commentary from a jolly minion with a microphone ("Hey, this is the only marching band with two national spelling bee champions as members...") so it might be best giving these areas a miss. My favourite part of the parade was the holding pen up Berkeley Street where hordes of American teens awaited their turn in the international spotlight, obscured by almost no spectators whatsoever. If you prefer horses dressed as zebras, check out the western end of Piccadilly instead.
If all this sounds appealing next New Year but you'd rather not roll off your sofa, rest assured there's no need to turn up because the entire parade is broadcast live on terrestrial television. Admittedly it's broadcast in relative obscurity on London Live to an audience of almost zero, but it's easy to dip in and see what all the fuss is about without having to sit through every twirling baton and clarinet. It was all a bit too American for my tastes, but my congratulations to the organisers for having the chutzpah to schedule the year's biggest overseas tourist promotion when most of London is barely awake.