Carnival: the word conjours up images of scantily clad, nubile young things gyrating to Latin-American rhythms in Rio, or beautifully be-masked revellers drifting elegantly through Venice on a warm spring evening. What it does NOT immediately bring to mind is a dozen and a half sodden Mothers’ Union members being dragged down a village main street on a flatbed trailer in the middle of a biblical downpour …
I’d received my instructions from John Jukes: I was to meet with him and my two fellow judges in the car park beside the Bank at 6.45pm sharp. From there we would ‘process’ (his word) to the steps outside the front of the Bank Chambers, be introduced to the assembled onlookers, and after that the festivities would commence.
For two days beforehand the residents of the three Cambers had been in high spirits. According to the Met Office, the forecast for the evening of the parade was fine and dry. This, I gathered, was almost completely unheard of; wet and windy was par for the course. Once, Maggie told me with barely-disguised glee, the rain had been so heavy it triggered a flash flood that very nearly did for the Mothers and Toddlers group. All dressed as Roald Dahl characters, they were caught unawares when the deluge came racing around the corner of Chapel Lane and down the hill. Main Street was littered – positively littered, she emphasized – with felled Oompah-Loompahs.
I watched the forecasts as anxiously as everyone else. The front of the Bank provides an ideal viewing platform: approached from one side by six steps and from the other by a wheelchair ramp, and protected by iron railings, there is a flat area at the top immediately outside the door which comfortably accommodates four people standing side by side and provides an unimpeded view of the street below. Unfortunately it’s also entirely devoid of shelter and wide open to the rain-bearing westerly winds.
Every forecast said the same thing: there was a weather front moving in from the Atlantic – the remnants of a dying hurricane to be exact – but it was slow-moving and wouldn’t reach UK shores until the Carnival was over, the floats safely back in their barns and garages and the revellers either tucked up in bed or propping up the bar in the Drovers Arms ripping the judges apart.
It’s just such a shame that it picked up speed as it approached landfall.
By the time I arrived at the Bank, squally winds were already whisking the leaves from the nearby plane trees into little vortices that eddied around the car park like damp autumnal dervishes.
John Jukes briefly introduced us to each other. Upper Camber was represented by an aesthetic-looking man sporting rimless spectacles and an immaculately tailored overcoat that absolutely screamed Savile Row. I mentally marked him down as a solicitor or an accountact, but he turned out to be a butcher with expensive tastes. His named was Geoff and he was very jolly. The Nether Camber judge was a rather tightly-wound late middle-aged lady in sensible shoes,a belted raincoat and a hat which was firmly attached to her curly grey hair with the largest, gaudiest hatpin I’ve ever seen. Her name was Mrs Dyer and she’d recently moved to the area following the death of her fourth husband. I thought it was a bit odd to emphasize ‘fourth’ as if it was an achievement, but then as someone who responds to the question ‘And are you married?’, with a ‘No’ so menacingly delivered it deters all further enquiry – I’m in no position to throw stones.
Can four people ‘process’? If they can, we did. We processed solemnly from the car park around the side of the bank and up the stairs to the viewing platform, which had been decorated, if that’s quite the right word, with the funereal bunting made from old shirts and trousers that I’d last seen at the Summer Fayre. It flaggered damply in the wind. I knew how it felt. For a couple of minutes we just stood there in the rain, self-consciously on public display. I wished I’d worn something other than my oversized puffa jacket, which made me look like the Goodyear blimp. A camera flashed over to our left, and I realized to my horror that the local press were present. The front page of next week’s edition will be carrying a large colour photograph of a dapper butcher, a neat little widow and a giant blue balloon wearing a clashing bobble hat.
Distantly, from the top of the hill, there came the sounds of a brass band tuning up. Then it started to get closer, and I realized that they weren’t tuning up at all but actually playing. Sort of. I could just about make out ‘Paint Your Wagon’, or possibly ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
As the first float approached, accompanied by guttering torches, the wind picked up and the rain started to increase in intensity. The ‘Frozen’ float looked more like ‘Drenched’. A word to the wise: if you’re going to spend hours making costumes, it’s probably as well to remember that November in the UK tends to be wet and windy. Cardboard and crêpe paper don’t react well to either, especially not both together.
The float paused in front of us. We looked at it. Mrs Dyer was openly bemused.
‘What is it supposed to be?’ she asked disapprovingly, eyeing the drooping antlers on the felt reindeer.
Geoff had a valiant punt.
‘It’s an animated film about … um … personal responsibility, self-sacrifice and … um …’
‘How high heels and a body-hugging sheath dress will set you free?’ I suggested unhelpfully.
The float moved on to be replaced by ‘It’s the Cambers for Me’ – a tableau extolling the virtues of the local area including, unexpectedly, brick making – the pollution from which is popularly believed to have sent more local people to an early grave in the last century than any other cause, including Spanish Flu. One woman was dressed up as a fantasy shepherdess, representing the local wool trade and a chunky bloke holding a pitchfork and a bunch of carrots was presumably rsupposed to represent agriculture. There was a wonky pile of bricks stacked between them. And that was it. Sheep, bricks and carrots.
It moved on.
During the course of the next ten minutes, we were passed by a succession of soggy people on a ramsahckle collection of farm and industrial vehicles, accompanied now and then by enthusiastically tuneless marching bands. Glitter ran off costumes and pooled around participants’ feet. Sodden cardboard ripped off in the ever-rising wind, unstable palm trees (from the ‘Life in Ancient Egypt’ float) toppled over and the ill-fated Mothers and Toddlers group trudged dispiritedly down the hill dressed as liquorice allsorts. The costumes were made out of painted upholstery foam. A couple of the poor kids could barely walk because of the weight of the saturated foam and all of them had water and paint running down their arms and legs. I’d have felt sorry for them if I hadn’t been so thoroughly miserable myself. Rain had started to run down my neck and I only knew my feet were still there because I could see them glistening wetly in the streetlights.
Then, almost miraculously, light, warmth and vitality surged down the hill towards us as a small fleet of restored Jeeps rolled up, led by four couples dressed as American GIs and their girlfriends, who were performing perfectly choreographed jive routines to the strains of Glen Miller. The girls all sported ‘Victory Roll’ hair styles and authentic 40s clothing and the young men conveyed perfectly the ‘overpaid, over-sexed and over here’ glamour that the GIs brought to austerity-gripped Britain in 1942. The rain and cold were momentarily forgotten as they stopped in front of us and jived as if there was no tomorrow … and then they were gone, to be replaced by a spotty youth who’d stuffed his car full of garden gnomes.My programme told me it was called ‘Gno place like Gnome’.
By the time we retired to The Drovers for the ‘slap up meal’ we’d been promised (cheese sandwiches, shop-bought sausage rolls and crisps) we were cold, soaked and fed up. We were also in absolutely no doubt who the winners were. We didn’t really even need to discuss it. We informed Mr Jukes that the jiving GIs had won it hands down, and it was only as he trundled off happily to announce the result to the waiting crowds in the saloon bar that I remembered Maggie’s comment about the previous year’s winners:
‘Last year, the judging committee voted for a float entered by incomers from the local holiday village. All terribly slick and impressive and professional. It was the best float by a country mile … At least two of the judges have since had to move house.’
I checked the programme:
‘GI Jive’ by Camber Valley Holiday Village.
I licked my lips nervously.
‘I don’t suppose,’ I said to my fellow judges, ‘that either of you know where the fire escape is?’
(Picture credit: Original photograph by Xavler Donat and reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.)