The Traditional English Carnival Event

Text and Photographs by

Paul Baldesare


click on the image above to see the set

Many years ago I came across the book A Day Off  by Photographer Tony Ray Jones. One section in particular Summer Carnivals was a particular favourite (although only seven of the pictures related correctly to the subject). In 1983 I began photographing seriously and one personal project I undertook, on local events, was based in and around an area of South East England close to where I lived, known as the Surrey Hills. Most weekends I would look for small community events such as Village days (which often included a carnival procession) fetes, fairs and country sports meetings. Having lived in London all my life I found these events bizarre. They belonged to another era, they were in a time warp of pre-war England.

They would remind me of the early Will Hay films, but this is not to decry them, I felt that it was a unique experience. I regularly returned to the area after moving back into Central London and in the early 90s, decided to take a second look at these events and re-shoot them in colour, but in ten years things had changed. A large influx of townies had changed the character of the area and the events I'd originally photographed had moved into the the era of Fun Days complete with bouncy castle and commercial catering. But one event was still intact the traditional English Carnival. It was these I decided to concentrate on and particularly the costumed procession. Obviously the word carnival normally conjures up images of exotic locations sumptuous costumes, dancers rhythmically moving to the sound of the samba beat to a back drop of an exotic sunkissed location.

The English Carnival certainly bears little resemblance to the robust and refined events of the Americas but in their own way are as much a statement of the society it originates from. During the year thousands of carnivals would take place throughout England from small hamlets and villages that barely appear on the map to major towns and cities. A large majority of these during the summer months, usually from late May through to September (although there are a variety of nightime illuminated, fireworks and Christmas carnivals)

But sadly over the last nine years of photographing them, partically during the Summer months, it is clear that they are slowly declining. When you can sit comfortably in front of a TV screen with its multiple channels, why suffer the vagaries of the English Climate, watching or participating in an event that seems more akined to a pre-war George Formby or Gracie Fields movie. Present day English Carnival belongs to the age of the Crystal Radio set and family holidays in Margate, Southend, Blackpool and Skegness. To this increasingly computer literate society, carnvial is as appealing as a long walk on a wet Sunday afternoon in February.

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