I was talking the other day to someone involved in our local carnival and with the promotion of what are now called ‘carnival arts’. If you are like me, I suspect this idea of ‘carnival arts’ runs rather counter to an impression of a few elderly lorries, each bearing their load of slightly embarrassed folk in poorly made and designed costumes, all passing by on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
I’m not entirely sure of the roots of the English carnival in the sense of these processions, although of course carnivals in the sense of fairs like the Nottingham Goose Fair or the Newcastle Hoppings or on a smaller scale the various Mop fairs across the country all have a long tradition. The oldest Carnival in England takes place in Bridgewater, and was established as a celebration of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. It was the precursor of the numerous ‘illuminated’ carnivals that now take place across SW England. Generally however; carnival in the form that we know it in the UK appears, like so many things, to be a Victorian invention. Ryde Carnival for example, on the Isle of White, is the second oldest in the country at a mere 120 years.
Carnival’s real origins are however much less decorous.
In late Medieval European society a feast called the ‘Feast of Fools’ was celebrated in the four days leading up to Lent. In Italy during the sixteenth century carnival developed as a series of masquerade balls encouraging the wearing of masks and costumes. In France Mardi Gras developed from traditional celebrations held on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. (The phrase Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday in French, from the custom of using all the fat in the home before Lent.) Carnival festivities in the UK originally developed from pagan rituals. Some were later adopted as landmark events in the Christian calendar, and others – like the May Day celebrations – kept their pagan roots.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the aristocratic and exclusive character of Carnival dissipated and the festival transformed into an affair for everyone. The emancipated slaves took the celebration to the streets and participated in what was known as the Canboulay or Cannes Brulees – a parody of dramatic events in plantation life, where exslaves adopted the personas of plantation masters by wearing the white masks, while other participants enacted the oppression by wearing padlocked chains…
Most of us have heard too of the Rio Carnival. (Cue gratuitous picture of scantily clad Latin beauties)
Other British traditions such as mummers, morris men, mystery plays and festivities like Up Helly Aa, the Helston Flora Dance and the Padstow ‘Obby Oss’, student Rag Weeks and even pantomime, all seem to have links in some way to this tradition of satire, ridicule and generally boisterous behaviour.
By the 70s however the carnival tradition appears to have been dying and probably would have done were it not for one thing – Notting Hill Carnival. The growth of the Notting Hill Carnival and of similar events in Leeds and elsewhere has it seems begun to reinvigorate the ‘traditional’ English Carnival procession. Notting Hill hasn’t had a smooth ride of course. The huge numbers attending and the disorder associated with it in some years has led to numerous attempts to corral it into a park, where presumably it can be better controlled. Such attempts at control are often couched in terms of public safety and these are of course relevant. However Notting Hill is also a huge demonstration of the existence of a different world, one that isn’t hidden away in suburbia, but out on the streets and making a lot of noise about it. The mindset that wants it penned up in a park is not much different from that which limits demonstrations in the area of the Houses of Parliament.
Being in coercive physical control seems never to be enough, and all rulers fear the voice of the small boy who cries out that the emperor’s clothes are not as substantial as claimed. And satire not only says that the emperor has no clothes, but that it is possible to laugh at the ones that he does have.
There are a range of actions where citizens may express a sceptical distance from those in positions of formal authority: carnival and the various forms of festivals of misrule, in which conventional authority is inverted; satire and the heckling of politicians; derisive or humorous election candidatures such as those of The Monster Raving Loony Party in the United Kingdom. Each of these says to government, in effect, we are keeping an eye on you, and we won’t necessarily accept without question what you tell us, or approve without enquiry what you do or propose to do.
Which sort of brings me back to the idea of ‘carnival arts’. On the one hand I am happy to see the carnival tradition reinvigorated – although not all agree that is in fact happening as for example the local newspaper report bemoaning the lack of ‘floats’, even though there were numerous walking groups in wonderfully elaborate costumes and banging out samba rhythms. On the other I am very uncomfortable with carnival becoming yet another area where the state – in the form of the Arts Council – sticks its nose in and tries to ‘legitimise’ what is going on.
[Cross posted from http://ibanda.blogs.com/panchromatica/2008/05/carnival.html]