Are you going to the carnivore?
Rio has its carnival, and Venice has its exotic sounding Carnevale. When we do it in Devon, it’s pronounced carnivore.
East Devon is certainly no Rio, and I am fairly sure it will never host the Olympics or a World cup, but once a year the region becomes the world capital of a certain kind of street party.
It is a phenomenon as reliable as the birds flying south for the winter or spiders coming into the house, so as soon as the nights start to draw in the local carnival committees have the urge to parade their light bulb laden tractor trailers around totally unsuitable village streets.
Traditions are strong, and nothing ever changes in the country. Or so I thought. I begin this report with an account based on observations taken some time ago.
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With cash prizes and long standing reputations to uphold the stakes are high among the competitors, and secrecy is paramount. In fact, most club members would rather give you pictures of their wife in the bath than tell you what the new theme is.
If two clubs did happen to have the same theme, the outcry would be like someone attending a wedding in the same dress as the bride. Exactly how the act of not talking to each other prevents them from all deciding to be ‘Postman Pat’ or ‘I am a cider drinker’ is a mystery to me, but somehow it seems to work.
Things are different once the season is underway, and the club members are encouraged to wear their club sweatshirts to advertise this year’s theme. Some members take this pride to extremes and are somewhat reluctant to take them off. Ever. One chap, renown for his financial prudence (he isn’t so much ‘careful with his money’ as a prison warden) refuses to throw away good quality fabric just because it has become a bit thin in places. He has worn his club sweatshirts to work for so many years it has become his signature fashion, and his friends eagerly await his wedding day to see which one he chooses. I can imagine the report in the local paper: ‘The bride wore a dress of finest hand spun silk with detailing of locally made lace. The groom wore an Axminster Young Farmers Carnival Club 1986 Final Countdown cotton sweatshirt.
The float builders are not the only ones fanatical about the carnival season. The locals also get excited, and every week they line the streets of a different village hoping to get the same view of the same floats they saw last week. With clouds of choking diesel smoke and music blaring at a volume that only the Red Arrows could compete, most people choose to watch from within touching distance of the procession, standing safe behind their children whom they balance precariously on the curb.
There is great technical snobbery and oneupmanship in float building and the size of the generator is one of the most important. These are often multi mega watt power stations that could keep a small country in electricity, and once operating at full capability can probably be heard from those same nations.
As the procession passes, you may become aware of a pattern emerging. Walking nonchalantly beside each float is a stocky person – usually male – in a boiler suit. He is the ceremonial spanner bearer. Some people think that this is part of the maintenance team in case of mechanical breakdown, but closer inspection will show that the only tool he has is a spanner. But this isn’t any old spanner. This is not the spanner that might be used to adjust the handle bars of your mountain bike, or even change a blown bulb on the float. This is a huge spanner, the sort you might use to build the Eiffel Tower or change the wheels of a Challenger tank. The colour of the boiler suit is of no significance and generally has no relation to the theme of the float, but the artistry in how the spanner is presented is of utmost importance. Some bearers carry the tool in a breast pocket, others opt for a back pocket display, but in every case the bearer proudly struts alongside the procession as if he is being judged. In fact, he probably is. There are numerous prizes awarded at each carnival throughout the season, and these all contribute points to the end of year carnival league table (the winners probably going into next season’s European Champions Carnival League). Categories include: best float, best walking entry, and best tableaux (which means standing perfectly still for two hours while freezing your tits off and being rocked around on the back of a tractor trailer), so it is perfectly feasible that there is a ‘best turned out spanner’ category.
If a float goes wrong – which of course it will because of its agricultural origins – there is a choreographed routine that would put a Formula One pit crew to shame. At the first hint of a troublesome noise (or silence from where there should be noise) the support team appears from nowhere and forms a scrum. After much huddled discussion and bemused pointing, one of them will kick the float with a steel toe capped boot and the thing will fire back into life. With smoke, music and lights again choking, deafening and blinding the townsfolk, the procession moves on and the oily mechanics dissolve back into the crowd leaving only the spanner bearer to continue his lone vigil beside the float. It is important that the oily mechanics get out of the way as quickly as possible, because if the Giant-Spanner Judge happens to be watching as an oily mechanic wanders by, it could lead to a very bad score for the spanner bearer and affect the end of year rankings.
That is how I always remember the carnivals of old. In the interest of journalistic integrity I attended a carnival this year to see how it has changed in the years since I last saw one (in truth, I was forced to go because my granddaughter has never seen a carnival before). Unfortunately, health and safety has taken its toll, and with soaring insurance costs and safety nets needed for anyone venturing any higher than the pavement things are not quite the same, and the carnival procession now largely consists of majorette troops. These are interspersed with carnival queens from every village in the county, liveried vans advertising businesses in the town and about three proper floats. The judging still takes place, and there is still a ton of loose change donated to charity, but the spanner bearers are harder to pick out amid the glare of hi-vis waistcoats.
Despite this, I must say that my granddaughter (and much of the local population) loved it.
A bit of tin rattling
Except for getting farm machinery stuck in narrow village streets, the main aim of this annual tradition is to raise funds for charity. So, with that in mind I am again rattling my virtual collection tin and asking you to make a donation to Mork and Mind, a fundraiser for Mind mental health charity in memory of Robin Williams. If you have been following my Sponsored Nothing, you will know why I have not dressed up as Bugs Bunny or Spongebob Squarepants to enter the carnival and collect money. If you haven’t followed it, you can read about it here.
Mork and Mind