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)

First encounters with a Community Carnival Group:

01.09.2012 · Posted in Carnival, place

I have been invited to attend a local carnival group by H, a young member of the Town Carnival Committee. I know the area only by partial reputation, a received knowledge comprised of general public concerns about the social deprivation which is centred on the two, large former council estates in the area. This is my first visit to the neighbourhood, and I arrive with an expectation of local decline. The grey, damp weather does little to lift this mood. I park near the Methodist Church which is the venue for the community Carnival Group meetings. I decide to take a turn around the block.  Many of the houses in the area are small Victorian terraces, some with dates around 1880 set in decorative brickwork.

I walk to the crossroads at the main road, where the local pub stands opposite a fancy dress outlet with windows full of costumes and props. Opposite is a Spar convenience store, an off-license and Polish shop and, further along, there are hair salons, takeaways, a mobility scooter franchise and a locksmiths. The street is busy with traffic but largely empty of pedestrians, who are mostly older people and kids coming home from school. It is 3.30pm on a Friday.

There are many guest houses along this street, at the bottom of which is the abandoned track bed of an old railway. Religion features prominently as I walk back up the hill, past the C of E church and the Ebenezer Evangelical Hall. I turn back, past the local Hardware Store, the Furniture Restorers and the convenience store where they sell cheap sandwiches and ‘pasties at low prices.’ So far the neighbourhood, while a little scruffy at the edges, is challenging my received prejudice about its physical character.

I walk to the Methodist Church and stick my head into the main hall, where the local Art group is finishing up. At one of the tables I meet R, a local young mother who runs the Art group and also helps as a maker on the Carnival Group. Her daughter is playing with paints nearby. The Art group is one of a number of regular groups held at the hall, alongside Beavers, a Fun Club for kids, adult Badminton, Spanish for beginners and the Baby and Toddler Group.

The Methodist Church is an unadorned, brown brick building with an imposing ten-foot tall crucifix window in its front elevation. Inside, the hall and upstairs room are undergoing a degree of renovation. R tells me the Carnival Group will be along in a minute and offers me a cup of tea. Soon a woman in late middle age arrives and introduces herself as J, organiser of the Carnival Group. She is expecting me. She takes me up to the upstairs meeting room, a long room with a small stage at one end which is full of boxes, costumes and props from last year’s carnival entry. J says the Methodists need the room cleared and that all the stuff has to go up in the attic after tonight’s meeting. I offer to help and she gratefully accepts.

J tells me she has been involved with carnival for a year and ‘loves it.’ She tells me they will be discussing the choice of theme for the 2011 float tonight and says that last year they won four trophies for their entry. This year, because they have to try and re-use their materials, it looks as if the theme will be In the Jungle. I am surprised when she says: ‘There are some who’ll say you don’t have to dress up in costumes to represent [this area] as a jungle, what with the estates up on the hill and everything, but what do they know?!’

J’s early comments about her community are revealing. She immediately defends her community against the ‘outsider’ prejudice against the area and sees the carnival float as a way of presenting a positive image of the neighbourhood. This year the group has received £1600 funding from a local housing association which is building new, affordable homes in the area as part of a £4.3m redevelopment programme. I later read in the local paper that this development has caused some conflict in the community over the re-location of some elderly residents.

J says – ‘People here can be a bit suspicious, even of the Carnival Group. It is hard to get them involved in things. They see the funding from the housing association, or that it is held in the church, and they assume it is all run by the council, or it is a religious thing, but it isn’t.’

J proudly shows me the trophies the group won at last year’s carnival. The wall of the upstairs room has its own Carnival Group notice board decked with bunting and bearing the slogan ‘It’s your carnival!’ J says the new floor in there is lovely, but will be a problem when things start getting messy during float building and costume making.

As we chat, E arrives. She is retired and has been involved in the Carnival Group for four or five years. She also delivers the community magazine and has been chair of the local Community Volunteers. E has been involved with carnival for many years, since she was a shop girl at the local branch of Marks and Spencers. ‘We used to get time off to be in the carnival and we made costumes and floats inspired by films that were on at the time’ she says. ‘It was great fun.’

H arrives and chats with me briefly before the meeting. He is stepping back from organising the local float this year, to focus on his expanded role in the Town Carnival Committee. However it soon becomes clear that he has considerable influence over the community entry. ‘Carnival is going to be great this year. We have got funding, and we should be able to get local businesses to contribute – after all, with the Olympics and everything it will be free advertising while the whole world is watching’, he says.

V arrives, an older gentleman dressed in gardening clothes, a black cap set jauntily on his head. ‘I love carnival’ he says. ‘I love seeing all the kids have a good time. That’s why I am here.’

We sit down around the table. I am expecting creative discussion about the choice of theme, and I am hoping that this will reveal the motives within the community group for their choice of self-representation. In fact it seems that the theme has been chosen by H in advance, on the basis that it will allow the group to re-use materials from last year.

From a research point of view I am initially disappointed that there is not a deeper reasoning behind this in terms of explicit identity-framing, but the subsequent conversation is actually more revelatory in this regard that I initially expect. As the conversation continues it emerges that, for these people, entering the carnival is about claiming membership of the community on equal terms to other areas of the town. It is also about demonstrating the organisational ability of the community to build a float, and thereby address the social issues which exist within within its own area. Finally, it is a chance to for the area to compete with the rest of the town to create the biggest spectacle possible with the resources and manpower available to local people.

J says she thinks the theme is ‘a little uninspiring’ and ‘lacks a focus’. She suggests linking it to the Olympic Games and going for ‘Jungle Games’. H says everybody will be jumping on the Olympic bandwagon this year, so we have to do something different. I wonder what the Olympic symbolism in this year’s carnivals might be and whether it will be supportive of or oppositional to the overall Olympic project itself.

H’s implicit position as the social leader of this group (in spite of J’s official role as organiser) also raises a ‘Russian Doll’ metaphor of identity.  The local float can only ever be a layer of representation, one which reflects a hierarchical decision-making process which constitutes ‘the community’ of this area within the town carnival.  This representation is inevitably in tension with the multiple, alternative telescopic, narratives of the wider local identity and their relative inclusion or exclusion from the process of representation and participation.

H has managed to secure a 40ft lorry from a friend’s dad – one of three available on a first-come basis. He is proud of this achievement. The size of the lorry is important to him – 10ft longer than last year – and he is proud to be getting the jump on other carnival groups locally who might also want to get hold of it.

Vehicles like this offer a framework for greater size and scale in float construction. The bigger the better seems to be the mantra, witness the controversy in Weymouth during the vehicle-free town carnival interregnum of 2007/8. Having a vehicle also means a relatively small group of people can create a large spectacle, whereas a large-scale non-motorised entry would need much more manpower to transport it through the streets. Perhaps then, encouraging greater levels of participation are the key to weaning town carnivals off petrol driven vehicles?

R has been looking for designs linked to the Jungle theme and thinks it might be ‘a bit vague’. J wonders aloud: ‘We could do Rainforest and have children dressed as exotic plants, I suppose’. E says the float must have ‘impact’. H suggests constructing a waterfall on the back of the lorry, making fish from tin cans and having a huge elephant head on the front of the vehicle which squirts water through its trunk at the crowd.

What about the Jungle Book?’ asks R. ‘Everybody knows that.’ Here the discussion reflects both the need for spectacle and the origins of creative ideas in the popular culture of film and TV – a factor which attracts criticism from outsiders as an example of a recent decline in creative imagination, but which E remembers as a feature of events from as long ago as the 1960s.

R says she has been researching carnivals in Brazil, where the float is often built as a large scale model object and the people dance around it in costume, rather than on it. H says the group should ‘try to get away from the gimmicky entries with hired costumes and think more about the type of entries they have in Notting Hill’. The £1600 funding will allow them to make a better float and recruit local young people to a ‘junk band’ project for the procession, he says.

I mention to H that I have heard about a local bursary project which offers cash support for groups seeking to develop their creative ideas for carnival. His reaction surprises me – he is not at all interested in the bursary, in spite of his stated desire to be ‘like Notting Hill’. He tells me that the group has paid for someone to go away on a course before, but that the person only did one carnival after that and that there were financial issues which had caused conflict in the group. V chips in and says ‘the carnival group use my car every year and I never ask for petrol money.’ H says it is pointless training someone in techniques unless they are going to stay with the group long term and pass that knowledge on to other people in the community.

This narrative clearly expresses the potential tensions associated with the creative ‘professionalization’ of community members; the sense of altruistic ‘civic duty’ which members associate with voluntary participation; the suspicion some communities have towards working with artists at all, and the enduring disappointment and cynicism which can arise as a result of difficulties in relationships between arts development organisations and local communities.

The group begins to engage with the problem of recruiting enough people to take part and to help spread the burden of the organisation and construction of the float, props and costumes. H suggests setting up a workshop programme in schools and putting up a creative marquee in the local Play Area, where people can come and make their costumes from scratch. J refers again to the suspicion local people may have of the group and thinks it may be because it is held in the Church Hall. She says it is ‘hard to get people down the hill’ which suggests that there are cultural and spatial borderlands between different parts of the local ‘identity’. H suggests that it might help if the group occasionally switched locations to the new community centre. It becomes clear from these exchanges that production spaces for these events need to be ‘ideologically neutral’ in order for a diversity of people to feel free to attend.

Focus swings back to the practical problems of construction and it seems that the Jungle theme has been accepted by the group at this point, in spite of reservations by three out of five people at the table. The issues centre on ease of making, re-use of materials from 2011 and weather. H proudly says the new lorry has a roof. R returns to the issue of the theme, asking:  ‘Where is the humour? The entertainment angle?’

H presses ahead, looking to create a timeline for production. It is suggested that the core committee make props and build the float between January and May, and that the process is then opened up to local children until August. Again the focus turns to how the group can recruit people to participation – approaches will be made to Beavers, Scouts and other local organisations and last year’s 50p-a-session fee  – considered a possible barrier to participation – is dropped.

Talk turns to the potential content of the Jungle float – re-use of animals models from last year and the creation of parrots and birds of paradise. The exotic potential is high – suggesting that the float also represents a break from the everyday and the imagining and embodiment of wider vistas of experience. H talks about the need for ‘research, books and templates’ for design. The inspirational status accorded to carnival events from other parts of the world – Rio or Notting Hill – sets an aspirational tone for the group in terms of their desired creative vocabularies, perhaps based on its members sense of subordinate difference between their local carnival culture and these well-known, archetypal locations for celebratory procession.

R is clearly identified by the group as the ‘artist’ among them. J says: ’R can draw the animals for us. There is talk of ‘wicker structures’ of ‘Aslan or King Kong’. Earlier in the evening, J had praised R’s artistic ability, pointing out the Bird of Paradise costume she made and the 3D papier mache animals used for last year, which included an impressive giraffe model. The group agree that R’s Art group could be involved in making for the carnival float on Friday afternoons.

The critical issues with regard to creative production here are those of expertise and manpower. R expresses frustration at the difficulties of ‘getting people involved in the group. It is the same people every year.’ E extends this to reflect the social borderlands which exist in the community itself, saying: ‘maybe people in [one of the two large estates] don’t think of themselves as [part of this community]’. J expresses a gender issue with regard to community participation: ‘we need fellas’, which suggests it is mainly women who drive production for the carnival. She expresses her sadness at the loss of ‘women’s’ craft skills such as sewing, which limits the amount the group can achieve with regard to costume making: ‘Poor G is the only seamstress we have, and she can’t do it all.’ R says ‘I can use a sewing machine.’ H hopes the scrap band project will address some of these issues, and will replace the need for a large sound system on the float.

The meeting draws to a close and we begin the task of clearing the props and costumes from last year’s carnival to the upstairs attic, a dusty room full of old chairs and collapsed jackdaw nests which have fallen down the chimneys into the abandoned fireplaces. We’ll be back next Friday, and every Friday until August, until the float is built, the costumes made, and the group takes its place in the annual parade of the Town Carnival.

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