The Dunkirk Carnival

7 February 2019

orlando blog 3

During my second year at UCL I had a chance introduction to Structuralism, an intriguing but complex fusion of linguistics and philosophy whose intricacies are now beyond me but whose rudiments I can still recall. Many of the metaphysical conundrums these academic pioneers pondered were rooted in the rapport between a ‘signifier’ and a ‘signified’ – the alternate aspects of the same word that lead to it being interpreted differently according to the user. Take the word ‘carnival’, for instance. For some these dactylic syllables might resonate with the throb of distant steel drums pounding a samba rhythm on warm Ipanema sands. Others might associate it with Venetian masquerades and water-borne incarnations. Still others might have hazy memories of packed-out streets in north-west London, stumbling over the empty bottles and cans strew about by over a million revellers determined to see summer out on a high, come rain or shine. 

Yet of all the connotations that this one word might conjure up, very few would find their mind wandering to a dull February afternoon in Dunkirk. Indeed, the average Brit has this coastal town marked on their mental map as the scene of WW2 heroism and rout, or the now unremarkable ferry port from where a summer holiday might begin. The intrepid minority that has strayed into the town itself was no doubt underwhelmed by the brick and concrete structures that have risen from the rubble of enemy bombardments. But despite the uninspiring architecture, sea fog, and flurries of hail battering salt-stained windowpanes, Dunkirk was the unlikely theatre for the most zany festivities I’d never heard of. As if to liven up the long winter months, the carnival season stretches from late January until mid March during which time a cluster of seaside communities are transformed into technicolour extravaganzas, an explosion of face-paint and fuzzy wigs. 

Dunkirk Revellers

Following subsequent enquiries into the reasons for such a spectacle I was surprised to discover that the carnival has been a regional tradition for centuries and greatly pre-dates other world-famous celebrations. Its origins are not religious but pertain to the fishing industry, when in times passed the fishermen would set off for months-long expeditions to the North Sea in perilous pursuit of cod. Their departure was preceded by feasts and dancing, cross-dressing and drinking, a final fling that many knew would be their last moment of terrestrial cheer. And although these annual campaigns to deeper waters have become a thing of the past, the fête has endured and for one wild weekend each year, over   50 000 participants in fancy dress descend on the unassuming town. 

So it was that I found myself among that frenzied crowd, rather rough at the edges after carousing until 4am with a group of veteran Dunkerqois carnivaleers. Copious helpings of onion soup had been my only sustenance, washed down with inescapable rounds of Chartreuse (a dangerous green potion distilled from innumerable herbs by devious monks) to which my host was rather partial and insisted that we partake in each toast. It had taken a Herculean effort to stir myself from the plush sofa that had fortunately caught me when I stumbled back to a friend-of-a-friend’s apartment, and having politely passed up on the breakfast of cold soup and warm beer I joined the curb-side mêlée in a slightly out-of-body state. 

Our ambitious intentions for intricately painted faces had been thwarted by lack of brushes (and artistic flare) so our jolly gang were recognisable by the fluorescent Rorschach masks we all appeared to be wearing. A friend had sorted me out with a pair of Mario-esque overalls and an overpriced sailors hat from the joke shop (the prices weren’t so funny) topped off the ensemble. Dressing in drag is very much the done thing so thick beards smeared with rouge and lace fringed petticoats seemed a natural combination. I’d managed to source an outrageous fur coat from a flat-mate who proudly told me that in 10 years of carnival service it had never once been washed… By all accounts I looked the part as we were engulfed by hundreds of other ridiculously attired merry-makers. 

Our first stop was the home of my friend’s brother’s ex-wife’s parents. Our troupe was greeted with open arms and me embraced like a lost son. I was taken aback. Even having lived in Lille for five months, this reception took Northern good will to another level. And yet the chapelle (essentially an open-house) is a mainstay of the carnival, a knees-up with the neighbours and anyone else who might turn up. The welcome was entirely genuine and I settled down at the dining table beside somebody’s elderly relatives who thought it was brilliant to have a young Londoner for company. Yet again, onion soup was on the menu – my investigations didn’t reveal the origins of this custom but I was grateful for the hearty sustenance on a chilly day. We all watched from the balcony as brass bands heralded a costumed stampede touting umbrellas, brooms, and other miscellaneous implements festooned with tinsel. Ebullient battle cries and songs with fantastically lewd lyrics were chanted with gusto by young and old. 

Dunkirk Town Hall

Bidding the old folks a warm farewell that belied our fleeting acquaintance, we struck out for the main square where the throngs were congregating. All eyes were on the town hall and specifically the belfry whose bells would soon strike 3pm. This was the climax of the weekend. The mayor, in medieval pomp and a tricorne hat, stepped out onto the balcony bearing a polystyrene crate of herrings. To my utter disbelief he proceeded to fling the (fortunately packaged) fish to the rapt mass below. The crowd went wild and surged forward, clambering over each other in frantic efforts to catch a lucky packet. My attention was focussed on remaining upright and wishing that I had steel toecaps and unfortunately any effort to capture the merry punch-up on camera was hampered by the incessant shower of vacuum-packed perishables and other projectiles pelted at the multitudes from the dignitaries above. 

I finally extracted myself from the scrum, battered and bedraggled, and made for the agreed rendez-vous: a heaving bar where we managed to squeeze ourselves in cheek and jowl. Everyone was wearing sopping fur coats and was spilling drinks over each other. I wasn’t sure whether people were dancing or just hopping from foot to foot lest they stick to the floor! I struck up conversation with the bloke beside me who invited us to his cousin’s house for another chapelle to which we willingly went. From here on my version of events becomes blurred, an onion soup-er-charged whirlwind of blasting bagpipes and clashing cymbals, strangers’ houses and slaps on the back. My ears were ringing and my t-shirt stained when I arrived back in Lille on Monday morning. Stunned and surprised, I reflected on a weekend like no other.

By Orlando Whitehead