Sunday, November 05, 2006
Bridgewater Carnival in Glastonbury
Within a couple of days of arriving in the town I went to the Glastonbury Carnival.
Actually it's not really Glastonbury Carnival at all. It starts in nearby Bridgewater around November the 5th, and then worms and snakes and shimmies its way through all the local towns over a succession of weekends. This weekend was Glastonbury's turn.
Jude was going to a party. She said, "when you get bored of all the mad drunks you can come up for a few drinks." I never did make it to the party.
I found myself a nice spot, just outside a pub where I knew the barmaid. There was a waste bin, on which I could balance my drink. And then I waited. There were thousands of people about. Many of them had selected their spots hours before. There were deckchairs lined up on the pavement up and down the High St. You could feel the excitement building up in the crowd. Some people were already line-dancing in the street.
I didn't know what to expect. I mean, I'd been given all the statistics. It's the largest illuminated parade in Europe, I was told. Each major float is 100ft long by 11ft wide by 17 and a 1/2ft high, with between 15,000 to 20,000 light bulbs, powered by megawatt generators. I wasn't sure if that was 15,000 to 20,000 light bulbs per float, or 15,000 to 20,000 light bulbs altogether. I tried counting them. I always got lost after about a hundred and fifty.
There were 130 entries this year, including 70 floats. The whole procession is three miles long.
It's all very well being told that sort of thing. But you have to see it to believe it.
I was starting to get nicely drunk by now, waiting for the Carnival to appear. I kept slipping back into the pub for another one. The bar staff were doing a magnificent job. I don't think they had a moment's rest in six or seven hours or more.
While I was waiting I had this monologue going through my head. These are the straights, I was thinking. These are the ones the hippies despise. But who are they? They're everyone. And there's some rogues here and some religious types, and some good people and some bad people and - yes - maybe even a saint or two. And there's clever people and dumb people, and ordinary people and weird people, and - yes - even a wise person or two. And there's sad people and happy people and lonely people and gregarious people. And kind people, and scheming people, and shucktsers and charlatans, and honest people and some who'd sell their own grandmother for a drink. Just like the hippies I'd met, only more of them. It's just the people, that's all, milling about here, there and everywhere, excited, demented, argumentative, rollicking drunk or stoned, getting on with their ordinary lives.
Some bloke slipped in by the waste bin next to me. He was using the waste bin to skin up. He offered me a dab of speed, which I took. Then I bought him a drink, and then he bought me a drink. He was from Essex.
The first figure to come up the road was a man dressed in a hooded cowl with a skull mask dragging a pair of coffins. That's when I knew that this whole thing was pagan. A festival of lights in the dark part of the year. Paganism simply refers to the beliefs and practices of the people. No need for Archdruids or High Priestesses. It's democratic. It has nothing whatsoever to do with religion.
After that it was a brass band, all dressed in Batman costumes. And that's when I started to laugh. It was a bunch of middle-aged men in Batman costumes, with their spectacles stuck on the outside of their masks, deliciously ridiculous. I never stopped laughing after that. And then the floats came. They were, as the statistics had told me, illuminated. But no amount of statistics can describe the effect.
It was like that feeling you had when you were a child and went to your first fair. All the moving lights, the bustle, the rides. The excitement is in the very air around you, like sizzling electricity. It was like the Carnival Floats had got hold of that special kind of spiritual electricity, and that's what they were running on.
They were pulled by giant tractors, with the megawatt generators trailing along behind.
The images were crass: kitsch nonsense. But that didn't matter. It was all the usual stuff: scenes from Star Wars and Disney. The Black-and-White Minstrels. The Telly-Tubbies. There were a couple of Egyptian style floats, with pyramids and hieroglyphs and dog-headed deities. One Chinese float with ideograms. One Japanese, with Samurai. One or two Red Indian scenes, one Christmas scene. I was listing them all as they went by to my friend from Essex. "Look. That's the third Shamanistic float. There's another Egyptian one." But the images didn't matter. The point was, they were fantasies made real.
The people on the floats were either dancing or standing perfectly still, in a frieze. The dancing people looked the happiest.
One float went by and there was an adolescent girl in a skimpy Red Indian costume jiggling about for all she was worth.
My Essex friend said, "look at the tits on that."
"She's not a that," I said. "She's a person."
"Oooo. PC," he said.
But I knew what he meant, nevertheless. My eyes were drawn to her too. And I realised that she loved it, that she was enjoying the attention, and that it was a sexual thing. Sexual but innocent. Sexy. I realised that it was liberating for her. And then I realised it was liberating for everyone else too. It wasn't just girls in skimpy costumes. There were middle aged men and women and adolescent boys, all feeling sexy too, all enjoying the attention, the make-up, the costumes, the lights, living out a fantasy-world before our eyes, gloriously expressive, radiating energy. "It's so human," I kept saying. "It's so liberating."
The Essex bloke had brought his partner over to talk to me. She said, "what path are you on?"
"I'm not sure. The footpath, I think. Why? What path are you on?"
"I'm a hedge witch and a pagan Priestess," she said.
The funniest bit came when I found myself dancing to "Ra Ra Rasputin" by Boney M. The float was a frieze of Russian Imperial life before the revolution. Rasputin was being brutally murdered before our very eyes. It was like a still from a bad B-Movie or a scene from a melodrama. I'd been dancing and laughing through the entire procession, jiggling away non-stop. But I was jiggling away even more now, with the sheer absurdity of the moment. No matter how crass the music, no matter how idiotic the floats, it was all so funny. There was a young woman dancing on the pavement in front of me. Everyone was dancing. I said, "you realise what we're dancing to, don't you?"
"Yeah," she said, "Boney M."
"Ra Ra Rasputin, Russia's greatest love-machine," I sang. "Great lyrics."
It was the greatest song in the world at that moment.