Research Explorations in the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site PhD Reflections on 'The Practices of Carnival: Community Culture and Place' (Jon Croose) and 'Stone Exposures: photography, landscape change and anticipatory adaptation in the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site' (Rose Ferraby)

The English Seaside Town as a setting for carnival:

12.12.2011 · Posted in Carnival, place

Weymouth  – 1/8/11:

promI arrive in Weymouth by car and decide to drive along the Esplanade. I am looking for the bar where I have arranged to meet members of the carnival committee. I have never been to Weymouth before. It is a sunny summer’s day, pleasantly warm and a little hazy. The first thing that strikes me as I turn onto the seafront by the Jubilee Clock is the sheer scale of the Esplanade, a long wide avenue with an arc of tall, impressive Georgian and Regency buildings on one side and the beach on the other. The Esplanade is the spatial theatre through which the Weymouth Town Carnival passes each year. Tall, balconied terraces look out over the sweeping, graceful curve of the seafront; the green cliffs of Rinsgtead Bay away in the eastern haze, the Pavillion and the stone battlements of the Nothe Fort to the west.

weyseaThe beach is full of holidaymakers. There are deckchair sellers and pedalos, ice cream stands and kids on skateboards. The sand is yellow, the sea clean and blue. I drive east to the end of the Esplanade, turn and drive back, looking for my destination. The ground floors are a mixture of restaurants, souvenir shops and bars. At the western end of the seafront is a small fairground, noise pumping from its arcades. I park behind the Baptist Chapel, on a road scarred with disused tram lines, next to the old harbour. With Kiss-Me-Quick to my right and expensive sea-going toys to my left, I park on the dividing line which exists in many English seaside towns between the popular world of the working class beach holiday, and the maritime heritage, relative wealth and exclusivity of the yacht basin.

gypsyIt is 5.15pm. On the streets behind the Esplanade, the day’s business is coming to a close. The main commercial streets boast the usual British mix of chainstores, mobile phone outlets, poundshops and empty shopfronts. Nearer to the Esplanade, fossil shops appear, alongside local souvenir outlets and pubs with outdoor seating. The Royal Hotel retains its Regency grandeur, across the road from the palmist’s booth with its hand-painted signs and declarations of lineage to generations of Gypsy royalty.

beachOn the beach, holidaymakers are enjoying the sunshine and young mums push babies along the seafront. Swimmers brave the late summer waters, kids fly kites and dig holes, and people eat chips under the watchful eyes of predatory seagulls. In the bar where the carnival committee holds its regular meetings, an older couple sit at one end, while a young barman chats to two customers at the other. A large TV screen above plays pop videos above the optics of spirits. I order a pint and ask the barman if he knows the carnival chairman, as I have arranged to meet him here but have not met him before.

‘They have their meetings upstairs. Every Thursday’ he says. ‘I’ll point him out to you when he arrives.’

I return to my pint and watch the video screen, on which a tribe of youthful models is dancing to R&B on a more tropical beachfront. When my contact arrives, he shakes my hand and declines my offer of a beer. He is in his 50s, grey hair, well turned out. We go upstairs to the meeting room in the bar above, which is in the process of refurbishment. There is banked seating and a long table down one side of the room; the rest of the room is full of builder’s tools and dust. A large bay window offers a commanding view of the beach. I later discover that it is from this balcony that the VIP guests for the town carnival watch the procession go by. I explain my research, he reads and signs the consent forms and I ask my first question.

greekMy interviewee is open and positive about the carnival, proud of its working class roots and open to the possibilities for ‘creative development’ of the event. He frames it primarily within its fundraising purpose for local charities, but also admits it’s less altruistic value to organisers and participants as a location for the promotion of local businesses. He describes the event as an opportunity for local businesses to advertise themselves and also for them to show they are ‘part of the town’ and to ‘give something back’ to their customers as a reward for their loyalty through the year.

Finally, the event is a chance to see ‘the whole town turning out,’ a day on which people signal their membership of the community and have some fun while raising money for local groups and charities.

crowd‘Carnival day is for the people. Carnival day is about the town. Everybody, everybody, the whole town visits carnival. The industrial estates on the outskirts of town, regardless of who or where, close at two o’clock on carnival day. It is a tradition in the town. And try and find a plumber, an electrician… you can’t because they are closed, because their staff are all down here…’

‘Would you say it is an event for working people?’ I ask.

‘It is definitely an event for working people. It is not … we are not aiming to move higher up the social scale….Weymouth is, traditionally, a bucket and spade resort and our market here is traditionally holiday camps…people staying in caravans. Ninety percent of the people you see on the beach today are staying in caravans, and they are working class young families and that is also where the carnival is aimed at.’

fundThis discourse is becoming a common one in my research in seaside towns which stage such carnival events in Dorset. It paints a picture of events which embody local pride, reinforce a sense of symbiosis between businesses and the community on which they rely throughout the year, which are an expression of working class solidarity in the face of ‘outsider’ pressures and yet encourage visitors and tourism.

My subject expresses frustration at outsider views which frame such events as being too populist or as lacking any artistic or creative merit in their processional vocabularies. ‘It frustrates me, because we are creative – look at the effort and organisation that goes into that one day, at the time and effort that people put in for nothing throughout the year. There is no [artistic] theme. [People] have complete freedom to choose whatever they like. All we ask is that they don’t offend anyone. That is creativity – it just isn’t arty farty. It is down-to-earth fun and organisation’, he says.

sandThe other committee members start to arrive for the regular meeting. The gathering is characterised by good-humoured mockery, a strong sense of shared project for the benefit of local good causes and a healthy dig here and there at the local authority, health and safety rules and local individuals who complain or are ‘difficult’ about the disruptive effect that carnival day has on the town.

logoThe committee is made up of Rotarians from three different Rotary clubs in the town: Weymouth, Weymouth Harbourside and Melcome Regis. These are business people, councillors, an ex-policeman, a former banker, pub owners, a photographer. Many members are retired, most express the desire to ‘put something back’ after successful careers or as a way of raising the profile of their businesses in the town. Roles and responsibilities are clearly laid out – each member has their specific role and is given the freedom to develop it as they see fit, with the support and guidance of the committee chair and its other members. The public identity expressed by the committee is one in which much is done on trust, in good faith and as a result of voluntary community spirit for the benefit of the town.

rotaryAt this first meeting I am struck by the organisational scope of this town carnival group, by the strong sense of local networks and communication it embodies, by the trust it places in individuals in terms of creative content and by the continuity of cultural practice the event itself represents in the town. Its public discourse is one in which there is a carnivalesque notion of participatory ‘chaos,’ a transformation which fully occupies the town’s most symbolic area of public space, and one which admits all-comers within certain conditions of participation. All of these are notions which require critical examination as a representation of local hierarchies, ideologies and systems of cultural control – the town carnival reproduces its own hegemony, after all.

Later, I reflect again on the contrasts between the discourses embodied by this grassroots group and those reflected in the professional, artist-led projects I have experienced which use carnival arts and processions as their vocabularies. Once again the debate centres on the notional values we ascribe to abstract, subjective terms such as ‘art’, ‘creativity’ and ‘community’. It is an argument which in the ‘grassroots’ camp perhaps reflects society’s mistrust of the artist, This mistrust is engendered by the paradoxical position the professional, publicly funded artist holds both as a purveyor of preferred High Art and as a revolutionary outsider who might threaten the established cultural practice within a community.  In the ‘arts /community development camp’ this is a debate which begs questions about the location of creative expertise and the relationship between creative practice and place, as well as who owns and guides that relationship.

In 2012, Weymouth Town Carnival finds itself slap bang in the middle of the Olympic and Paralympic sailing events, at the heart of a global mega event which will bring all manner of cultural, spatial and political influences to bear on its resident communities and their annual celebratory occupation of the Esplanade. It is for this reason that it is an exciting place to be studying the tensions between art, community, politics, and culture as they are enacted on the streets of an English seaside town.

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