The importance of the procession as both spiritual ritual and social enactment cannot be overestimated. True, not all are required to attend – and on any given occasion the crowd has a harlequinade feel: young Irish dancing girls in short, flared green dresses; snake men from Djibouti, quite naked and oiled by their own sweat, and coiled in a python or three; civil servants of the older, more staidly stout kind in wing-poke collars, pinstriped trousers, and tapping the ferrules of their umbrellas on the ground.
There is no particular sense of command in the way the tortoise handlers move forward through this gallimaufry that eddies about them (the crowd seldom obeys gravity, instead it swirls away from the halting progress in waves that break up into a spume of individuals), and indeed many question whether the handlers have any true function – either sacerdotal or political – but are instead chosen quite arbitrarily after having been seen lounging by nets full of kindling on sale outside A-road petrol stations. Still, they wear long robes, dark ones, and these sway as they urge the tortoise on. The tortoise is at once real enough – a giant and long-lived specimen of the kind found in the Galapagos – and quite clearly a fake made from onyx or soapstone and slapped over with a coat of dark green paint. Inset on its vast back is a pool of steaming liquid (no one knows if it is very hot or very cold), and the important thing is for the crowd to respond both to the tortoise’s forward motion as it is urged on among them by the handlers pulling on a series of cords tethered around its neck, and to the slopping, eccentric motion of the fluid in the pool. In this response is encoded all of the social relations that are unquestioningly obeyed throughout the land: the way we duck, and rise and fly and twirl and float says everything that anyone needs to know about us. I saw LR at the tortoise procession last night, standing cool and pale, swaying only a little in response to the rhythms and counter-rhythms of the tortoise and its back pool. I loved her very much when I was a young man, but seeing her once more so many years later it struck me yet again how foolish I’d ever been to imagine that someone of her class could ever love me.