Carnival life is part of the culture of the West Country
Shepton Mallet U3A
John Dando was welcomed by Shepton Mallet U3A on Thursday as their guest speaker. His talk was titled The History of Carnival.
John explained that carnival all started back in 1605 when folk celebrated the November 5. Scouts went out looking for wood for the bonfires and rowing boats were in abundance so were often taken for firewood.
There were parades of effigies and the best one would go on top of the fire. Handmade "squibs" (a wooden torch), and where it is believed the phrase "bit of a damp squib" originated from, would be lit. They were carried high on a wooden pole and the squib would be a foot to 18 inches tall on top of that. The only place in the country allowed to have squibs is Bridgwater, the centre of carnival. 170 squibs were lit at Weymouth though for the opening of the Olympics and was a spectacular sight along the waters-edge.
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Although carnivals appear in the late summer onwards, the work of the carnival folk goes on all year round. New carts are designed and made, costumes designed, health and safety of the equipment has to be checked, items crafted, generators checked, light bulbs purchased, and much more. Some carts use over 26,000 light bulbs and need a 16 ton generator. If bulbs aren't working the carnival owners lose points at the show.
The Carnivals In Somerset Promotion Project (CISPP), received £42,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and visits schools and educate the children in safety at carnivals, and encourages the children to join carnival life, as it is part of West Country culture. There are jobs in engineering, art costume design, performance skills, communication skills, life skills, making friendships and learning to be part of a team and to have fun.
The CISPP are trying to get this culture recognised throughout the country and Europe. The visits are now part of the school curriculum. DVDs have also been made explaining junior and walking group entries for carnival and they have classes for disabled people.
John told us of his first entry into a carnival 40 years back, at Burnham-on-Sea. The cart was Voyage to lost Horizons. It was a 40 foot clinker built boat and vestal virgins had to be sought. The music played was I'm Just a Gigolo with a lady tap dancing and he wore a hat full of feathers.
Carnivals raise money from street collections for charities all across the area. "The carnival at Glastonbury raised £25,000 in coins which weighed 1.7 tons, and I slept with the money all night, guarding it with my German Shepherd. The bank collected the next day as it cost more to collect at weekends", he said. "The carnivals are not sponsored, all the efforts of the people make it what it is today," John added.
In a garage in 2009 were found phosphorous flares and candles from the 1930s, wood-wormed but with their original wicks. Bonfires were banded on the roads in 1925 as the tarmac was then laid and it would have melted.
John has been involved in carnivals for over 33 years and has loved it. He is press and publicity man for the Somerset Carnivals and has been Cart Chairman over the years. Last year a DVD was made, placed in a special box, and sent to the Queen at Sandringham for her Jubilee and her Lady in Waiting replied that the Queen had loved it.
Peter Howell, chairman thanked John for his very interesting talk and for bringing in some lovely costumes and a squib. The next speaker meeting will be on Thursday, October 3 at the Club Lounge at 10.30am and the speaker would be Nigel Hewitt Cooper talking on Carnivorous Plants – Myths and Misconceptions.