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CARNIVAL

carnCarnival: 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.)

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A RARE HONOUR

doomedIn life, there are good days and there are bad days – and then there are the days when you find out that:

(a) You’ve been suckered and

(b) You’re doomed.

Today has been one of the latter.

It started in a perfectly harmless way. I went down into the village to post a parcel, buy some stamps and see if Isobel Buchanan had any of those nice chocolate egg things filled with concentrated sugar syrup and violent yellow food colouring. It’s the wrong time of year for them of course, but Isobel is cheerfully unfussy about stock control and it’s one of life’s unexpected pleasures to discover a chocolate Santa lurking behind the baked beans in August – so it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that she had the odd chocolate egg or two languishing somewhere. If I got really lucky, I thought, they’d be out of date and she’d sell them to me cheap – or even given them to me for free. Yes, I’m that sad.

As it turned out, the parcel and the chocolate eggs (half price – Yes!) were no problem. It was the stamps that proved problematic, which – given that I was in a Post Office – was an unexpected setback.

‘How many £1 stamps do you have, Isobel?’

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. ‘That’s a strange question.’

‘In a Post Office? It’d be a strange question in the butcher’s, but …’

‘WHY do you want to know how many £1 stamps I have?’

‘Because I need quite a lot and I don’t want to clean you out. Fifty pence ones will do, if it’s a problem.’

‘Oh. Well. I see. That’s different. I’m sorry but Professor Pilchard came in and bought a hundred £1 stamps …’

‘Professor PILCHARD?

‘Pilger. PILGER. I must stop calling him that. One day I’ll do it to his face … Anyway, he bought a hundred of them. I just wondered if you were in it with him.

I was beginning to feel the universe shifting around me again. It’s a feeling I’ve become very familiar with since I moved here. ‘In WHAT with him?’

‘Whatever it is he’s doing with one hundred £1 stamps’

‘Sticking them on envelopes?’ I hazarded. She wasn’t amused. In fact, she didn’t appear to have heard me.

‘He’s an odd man.’ She did a funny little chicken-bottom thing with her mouth. ‘Doesn’t seem to want anything to do with village life.’

I thought that this was actually entirely understandable, but refrained from saying so and merely cocked my head to one side in the manner of one who is expecting more information to be forthcoming. She didn’t disappoint.

‘He moved here shortly before you did – but you hardly ever see him around. He stays shut up in that big house of his – Bramblings, out on the Nether Camber road – and never sets foot in any of the village events. Old Commander Wingfield now, he was lovely. Joined in everything, opened the garden to the public, held fundraisers for the church there … but the Professor …’ Her mouth hardened into a thin pink line. ‘He doesn’t want to know.’

‘Well, that is his prerogative. Some people are just reclusive.’

‘Can’t think why anyone would want to be. It isn’t natural. For all your funny ways, YOU aren’t reclusive, are you?’

I was just trying to frame a suitable reply to that one when the bell on the shop door jingled, announcing the arrival of another customer. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the Chairman of the Parish Council – John Jukes – advancing on us, looking even gloomier than usual.

Mr Jukes is the local undertaker. Legend has it that he once came up with “Your Dead are Our Living” as a catchy strapline for his adverts in the parish magazine, but I have yet to see any written proof of this and until I do, I’ll continue to regard the story as apocryphal on the grounds that no-one could be that daft, not even John Jukes. (On the other hand, it was his wife who, as a receptionist at the local solicitors, had to be stopped from telling tearful clients phoning up to make an appointment after the death of a loved one that they would be seeing ‘Mr McLaughin, rhymes with coffin’ …)

Isobel eyed Mr Jukes questioningly. ‘No luck?’

He shook his head, then appeared to notice me for the first time. Suddenly, and disconcertingly, he smiled. I can’t tell you how unsettling that was. If ever a man had teeth like ancient tombstones, that man was John Jukes. I promptly rechristened him The Mouth of Sauron.

‘JUST the person I’ve been looking for.’

‘Really?’ My voice was so squeaky, I sounded like a three year old. ‘Why’s that then?’

Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I could see Isobel nodding in satisfaction, but I was so hypnotized by The Mouth, I’m really not certain.

‘You’ll have heard all about Camber Carnival?’

‘Um. Yes. Sort of.’ I could hardly have avoided it. Once a year, after the clocks have gone back and the dark evenings are descending, all of the Camber villages – Adverse, Upper and Nether – join forces for a thoroughly pagan ritual involving a  torchlight procession down Adverse Camber’s main street, marching bands, and decorated floats. The highlight of the evening, I have been told, is the competition for Best Decorated Float, which is always judged by three local dignitaries.

For more than a month, amidst utmost secrecy, float construction has been underway in all three villages, with hammering noises issuing from behind closed garage doors, local shops selling out of glue, paper, paint and glitter and the Adverse Camber band spending hours every evening in the Parish Hall, practising what sounds like a hitherto undiscovered piece by Arnold Schoenberg.

The Mouth came closer.

‘Every year,’ it said, ‘we ask a well-regarded person from each of the three villages to judge the Best Decorated Float competition … and at the last Parish Council meeting, we voted unanimously to ask … you.’

‘Me?’

‘It’s a rare honour,’ chipped in Isobel. ‘A very rare honour indeed. Many would like to, but few are asked.’

‘It’s very straightforward,’ continued The Mouth. ‘All the three of you have to do is stand on the steps of the Bank as the procession goes past. Each display that’s entered for judging will stop in front of you for 30 seconds, so that you can have a good look, and then when they’ve all passed you, you repair to a private room in the Drovers where, over a slap-up meal, you decide between you who the winner is.’

‘Oh. Well … That sounds quite jolly and civilized. I’d be happy to, in that case.’ I smiled weakly. ‘Thank you everso much for asking me.’

Later that day, feeling quite pleased with myself, I wandered up to the farm to tell Maggie my news.

She gave me one of THOSE looks – the sort that cause you to hear the thundering hoofbeats of an approaching apocalypse.

‘What? What’s wrong?’

‘They saw YOU coming. didn’t they?’

‘Whaddya mean? They said it was a rare honour. And that the Council voted unanimously to ask me to do it.’

She snorted in a most disrespectful way.

‘They voted unanimously to ask Professor Pilger. He declined. Forcefully, as I understand it. Ever since then they’ve been looking for a sacrificial victim. They’ve asked three people to my knowledge. John Jukes even tried me this morning. I pleaded a prior engagement.’

‘But … what’s the problem? It sounds simple enough.’

‘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.’

‘And?’

‘At least two of the judges have since had to move house. One of them was Sid Button.’

‘As in the Sid Button I bought my cottage from?’

‘The very same. I’d put it on the market now, if I were you – to give yourself a decent head start.’