Bridport & West Dorset News, Views, Videos & Curiosities

Are carnivals relevant to West Dorset countryside and coast?

An opinion piece about plans to spend £45,000 studying carnivals along the Jurassic Coast of Dorset and East Devon

Photograph by Agencia Brasil, reused under Creative Commons Licence.

IS THIS country too anchored in its past or feeling too guilty to be so politically correct?

There is a certain irony that Carnival should be studied in a country that has never been keen on Catholicism.

Mardi Gras, after all, is not very British.

Carnivals no longer have much to do with Lent but to my mind they do have a lot to do with cities.

Rio and London spring to mind, not the Jurassic Coast.

Weymouth or Bridport may well have wonderful carnivals but their reputation is not national, let alone international.

I have only lived here for two years, which makes me ignorant, but none of my forty-something friends that have lived here a while longer – or forever – have ever suggested going to either.

The events we do go to are ones anchored in many of the people who make up West Dorset and East Devon, the districts mainly relevant to the Jurassic Coast.

Culture and food

Take the world-renowned Bridport festival. If you write in English you will probably have heard of The Bridport Prize; thousands of entries from around 80 countries world-wide make a pretty wide introduction to a town and its world-class festival. But who has heard of the Bridport Carnival?

The Beaminster Festival of music and art – when the sleepy medieval town comes alive for a fortnight – is another example.

Dorset Arts Weeks is the largest Open Studios event in the country, 800 artists take part, and that’s only visual arts.

Food festivals compete with each other and attract hundreds of people, local and otherwise. Our area is filled with talented creatives and Dorset could lead the world in placing culture at the heart of quality of life. Who will lead the creatives or at least coordinate them I am not so sure. Working together to a common goal is not something I have seen enough proof of since I have lived in the UK (23 years) although thankfully this is slowly changing.  

Take Normandy as an example. Helped by the French government, Normandy has marketed itself as the birthplace of Impressionism. 2010 sees the largest Impressionists exhibition ever, drawing art enthusiasts from around the world: Americans and Japanese are very keen).

This did not happen in a day, it is a massive investment in time, effort, organisation, structures; more importantly it is born from a realisation that art is a medium by which rich and poor have always communicated, something that not only brings inspiration and well-being but also economic repercussions.

Would Impressionists be the same without Constable or Turner? Should we not celebrate our artists rather than leave them to be marginalised?

Why look to Carnivals in an area that is heavily anchored in the countryside and the sea?

West Dorset and East Devon are not about cities or even large towns, they are about communities that get together on a human scale to come up with child-friendly events, fêtes and festivals.

Drawing an analogy to music festivals, this is not Glastonbury, this is Truck.

Friendly, quirky, socially responsible, sustainable, on a human scale and a hell of a lot of fun.

It may be less socially acceptable to do research on art and culture and far more politically correct to conduct research on inner city leisure time.

Is this a case of looking to the industrial past that makes us believe that cities come first and foremost?

Is it a guilty feeling that countryside people are luckier than city people and need less investment from any governmental body?

Or is it a case of an idea coming from London or even Weymouth rather than from the people that actually live along the Coast concerned?

The originators of the idea cannot be blamed if their lack of vision is due to the lethargy of the people concerned.

We could point the finger if the people concerned have not been properly consulted or even informed. I have not lived here long enough to comment on this.

But I do know that information is difficult to get unless you actively look for it.

Thank you Real West Dorset for coming up yet again with an interesting debate.

Editor’s Note: The three-year PhD Carnival studentship is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the successful applicant will work with Exeter University academics and members of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site Arts Programme team.

The project will focus particularly, but not exclusively, on Weymouth, as there is “an agenda of connecting communities along the Jurassic Coast with communities sharing strong carnival cultures across the globe, the aim being to forge a globalised carnival community expressed through embodied performance and arts practice.”

Here, for the record, is the full list of research questions.

  • What are the historical geographies of the Jurassic Coast’s carnivals?
  • To what extent have elements of transgression, empowerment and resistance played a role in the movement and experience of the area’s carnivals?
  • How is ‘carnival’ being used by the Jurassic Coast WHS Arts Programme as a vehicle for community cohesion and relational celebration, both along the coast and through UNESCO World Heritage Site networks?
  • How is the local carnival heritage negotiated within the context of an internationally orientated festival that has a global audience?
  • How does the mobilisation of carnival in different policy agendas impact on community engagement and participation within the practice of carnival?
  • How does the transgressive nature of carnival and mobilization of arts practices within the event work through governance frameworks?

We might come back to the question, just for the fun of it, of whether the nature of carnival is transgressive or whether that notion, generally derived in modern academic discourse from the pre-war Russian critic and philosopher Mikhail Bahktin, is, arguably, wrong.

(And not just because I truly cannot think of anything transgressive I have ever seen in, for example, a Groves Nursery float).

7 Responses to “Are carnivals relevant to West Dorset countryside and coast?”

  1. Ray Girvan

    Working-class, middle-class

    (I’m not from Dorset, but live in East Devon where the situation is much the same.)

    I think the central observation unaddressed here is demographics: generalising broadly, rural carnivals are working-class; food festivals and arts festivals and writing prizes are middle-class. In Topsham, where I live, for instance, the divide is exemplified by Carnival Day (largely attended by working class visitors from Exeter) and the forthcoming Longest Table (where participants pay £25 a table and are expected to bring locally-sourced – read expensive – food).

    The problem perhaps is the highbrow wording of the study: no, carnivals aren’t going to be “transgressive” by any middle-class definition of the word (i.e. breaking the particular taboos of middle-class arts enthusiasts). They are, however, frequently transgressive in the sense of a long tradition of festivals worldwide that give a temporary break from the social norms of their participants: outlandish costume, cross-dressing, ridiculing public figures, employees imprisoning employers, and so on.

  2. lucath

    Traditional for centuries

    I have sent several photos of Lyme’s carnival Queens of the 40s and 50s to the Bridport News and as in Okehampton and many other towns they have been traditional for centuries. They have nothing to do with Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday) and are more June festivals with floats, big heads and dancing on the Front (Marine Parade). Some are earlier with May Queens (Helston’s Furry Dance and Obby Oss) and Springtime festivals.

  3. The Red Bladder


    Sad to say I have always found that once you start tring to analyse a bit of fun it ceases to be fun. Give up before it all goes away.

  4. The Red Bladder


    That should, of course, read trying. My reply has nothing to do with Hertfordshire at all.

  5. nathalie roberts

    Relational celebration

    I agree with Ray that the wording is a problem. You talk about rural Carnivals. I understood Carnivals to be urban. Now that I know there is a party on 21/08/2010 in Bridport, I’m going. The Weymouth Carnival is on Wednesday 18/08 not so convenient for working people who don’t live or holiday in Weymouth.

    I understand that ‘The Topsham’s Longest Table’ costs £4 per person, is a large street party and that the money raised goes back to the community and chosen charities. If it gets neighbours that don’t normally interact with each other talking and helps cancer research along the way, is that a bad thing?

    Is one event more interesting or worthwhile than the other? Surely there is a place for both.

    There is undoubtedly a divide between working-class and middle-class. What strikes me (maybe because I am foreign?) is that this divide comes as an answer to just about every debate. Would more understanding of each other on both sides of that fence go some way towards ‘community cohesion and relational celebration’ along the coast? I don’t know nor do I fully understand what they are trying to achieve with that £135,000.

    I would love to know what the taboos of middle-class arts enthusiasts are, another time maybe.

  6. Claire

    On our doorstep

    Nathalie, I think you get to the crux of the ‘problem’ with the question ‘what are they trying to achieve with that £135,000?’. What indeed? Perhaps, just perhaps, someone in the Big House has realised that something that was once very strong is now on the wane, and they would like to help revitalise it so that it can be re-packaged for a more national / international audience.

    What little I do know about carnivals in the south west is this: Carnival is definitely not Mardi Gras, as previously stated by Lucath. A lot of carnivals are actually held in the late summer / autumn. Most of the ones that I know about are more inland – there is a large carnival tradition in Somerset for example. I had never realised that it played such a large part in rural society until I worked for a company in North Dorset that had a very rural workforce. Many of the workers belonged to different carnival clubs, and often there were fights over who had which week off as they were all competing in the same processions! As far as I could see it was an wonderful excuse to dress up and have a great party, with a slightly competitive edge – and who can complain at that?!?!

    How ever different carnivals came about in the past, there will always be some resonance in the modern world and it is a tradition that we (ALL of us, not just one particular ‘class’) should be proud of. I have never understood the British habit of dissing our own culture – think of the sneering that Morris dancing receives – and yet so many of the admittedly middle classes hanker to visit Pamplona, or Rio, or New Orleans etc etc. Sometimes it pays to remember that most of what we seek elsewhere is already on our doorstep, if we could only stop looking down our noses for a moment.

  7. Ray Girvan

    Chained to posts

    Claire: “Perhaps, just perhaps, someone in the Big House has realised that something that was once very strong is now on the wane, and they would like to help revitalise it so that it can be re-packaged for a more national / international audience”

    Good analysis. Certainly the carnivals on the Devon circuit are on the decline (for example, in the 15 years I’ve been there, Topsham Carnival has definitely shrunk). A common complaint is increasing insurance cost being a disincentive to entering floats; you’ve probably noticed how people on the floats have to be chained to posts nowadays. My wife and I were on the Topsham committee for a couple of years, and funding was (and no doubt still is) a constant concern; the Carnival gets by on a shoe-string with funding from collection at the Carnival itself, along with support from pubs and businesses – and gets no support from the kind of people to whom it’d mean nothing to write a cheque for £500 (and would if, say, it were in aid of a Maritime Weekend chiefly of interest to the yachting set). If carnivals could be rebadged to attract where that smart money is (perhaps by including associated more highbrow events) they might get more funding to reverse the decline.

    Nathalie: by “the taboos etc” I just meant the kind of things would be described as “transgressive” in, say, a review of a play or an art exhibition: major, perhaps offensive, challenges to political / religious / sexual / cultural norms. Carnival floats don’t tend to do that…

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